Waaaaah, Xiao Huo is back! And back for good, with chapter 4 being pretty much the only time he’s not around to tease, annoy, and confuse the heck out of Jin Yu. From chapter 5 onward, Da Mo Yao is full speed ahead without looking back. Strap on your seatbelts, folks. Since DMY takes the real life historical annals of the politics and court intrigue during a ruling period of Han Emperor Liu Che and weaves Jin Yu into the story (and taking liberties where necessary), I’ll try to provide some context as required so the whys are clear. I’m thrilled that so many people are joining along in this read, which truly is a labor of love on my part (Sleep, wherefore art thou? My fingers, they be numb and hurty. My neck needs to be permanently placed in a brace now). It’s worth it, because Xiao Huo, Xiao Yu, and Xiao Jiu are such well-written compelling characters that I want to spend more time with them.
Chapter 5: Shadow in the Window
On the 6th day of performing “Hua Yue Nong”, the prices have tripled and all the seats are sold out for days already. I’m paying the girls not only their wages, but also extra depending on their character performance on stage. Everyone is happy, even Fang Ru, who has rocketed to fame and can vie with the top dancers in the city on her fees for spending time with a customer [just chatting and drinking in a private box, not anything salacious].
The performance hall has a common area seating below, but also private boxes up top where the ladies or more high class clients can watch the performance in privacy. I bring the Li siblings to one private box. They protest such kindness but I tell them this is my box which I never rent out so they can use it. Li Yan gives me a look, wondering who I am keeping this room for? I smile at her, telling her to guess.
A maid comes running in and tells me Hong Gu desperately needs me because some very important guests have arrived. I stand up but then sit down to calm myself. Li Yan asks “Is the person you are waiting for finally arrived?” I nod “Most likely? Hong Gu grew up here and knows everyone. She won’t need me unless it’s urgent.” She asks if I need this room but I tell here there are other empty rooms. I sip my tea and fix my skirt before heading out, having calmed myself.
Outside I see Hong Gu leading two men down the hallway. She sees me and her face immediately relaxes. Xiao Huo, no, Huo Qu Bing, hair finely combed and adorned, with elegant and lavish attire, wearing a somber expression, is right there. The moment he sees me, his footsteps stop. I have a small smile on my face as I walk up to courtesy to him. “Young master Huo has deigned to visit our Luo Yu House, what an honor it is.”
He looks at me for a few moments, and then his face lit up and he smiles “You really came to Chang An!” Hong Gu looked at me and then looked at Huo Qu Bing, her face registering her confusion. I initially want to mess with him a bit, but when he smiled so openly and didn’t seem to feel bad at all, I got a bit annoyed. I shifted and gestured for him to keep going.
Suddenly another maid comes running to tell me tha Wu Ye is here, with someone he calls Third Master Shi, and there is also someone else in the back of the carriage. I let out an “Ah!”, pulling my skirt up and taking off. I suddenly remember and quickly run back to Huo Qu Bing and gave him a bow “I have an urgent matter to handle, will the young master please excuse me.” I tell Hong Gu to bring him to his room before running outside.
Jiu Ye is pushing his wheelchair with Wu Ye, Tian Cao, Shi Feng following behind him. My happy voice arrives first “Why didn’t you send someone ahead to tell me?” He laughs “It was a last minute decision to come see what has been keeping you so busy that you didn’t even come home last night.”
I wrinkle my nose and laugh, walking beside him “I wasn’t busy last night, I was admiring a beauty. Later I’ll let you meet the beauty.” He smiles and doesn’t respond.
At the end of the hallway, I tell the others to climb the stairs. They don’t move until Jiu Ye tells them to go. I take Jiu Ye into a very small room, the size of a large box really, fitting only me and Jiu Ye inside. I can’t even fully straighten my body, needing to crouch down next to Jiu Ye. I apologize “Because of safety reasons, it couldn’t be built any bigger.” The door is closed and I pull a bell. Soon the room starts to lift. Jiu Ye quietly asks ” Did you build this on purpose?” I nod a yes.
In the darkness it’s extremely quiet, so quiet it’s like we can heart our thumping heartbeats. The candle is within reach but I don’t move to light it. Jiu Ye doesn’t mention it either. We just stay in this cramped space in silence. The light fresh scent from his body slowly drifts over to me, and his scent seems to enter my heart.
When we arrive, the performance has started. I make tea for Jiu Ye while Wu Ye urges me to go back and find Hong Gu, who is left with a mess to handle. Jiu Ye also tells me to go do my job.
When Hong Gu sees me, she shoves the tea set at me “I can’t stand it anymore! Young master Huo’s face can freeze a person. Since he stepped inside, I feel like it’s Winter descended again. I tried to be pleasant, saying a million things, but he doesn’t even raise an eyebrow. I’m frightened out of my wits, wondering if our performance, having not offended the Great General, has instead enraged the city’s most arrogant young lord. But when you show up, he starts to smile. I don’t know what’s going on between you two but I’m not going to be a part of it anymore. I’m afraid I’ll lose my life.”
I ask her to stay but she tells me to handle it as the head of the house. I sigh and take the tea set, walking slowly to the room. The servant opens the door for me and I walk in. The young master Huo who supposedly has the power to change the weather in this city is watching the performance with a poker face. I put the tea set down and place a cup before him. He doesn’t look at me so I also don’t feel like speaking. I turn to watch the show. He picks up the cup and takes a sip, which is when the performance arrives at the scene when the dancer Qiu Xiang appears while dressed as the Great General. She takes a fake sword and dances around the stage, raging at the Xiong Nu.
Huo Qu Bing spits out his tea and bends down, with one hand on the table and the other on the tea set, his body rocking gently. I hurry before him and take his cup and put it on the table, moving to wipe the table dry. He tempers down his laughter and points at Qiu Xiang on the stage. “If the Great General Wei looked like that, clearly it would be the Xiong Nu who kill him, rather than him killing the Xiong Nu.”
I recall the fierceness of the Xiong Nu and I also force myself not to laugh. I get up to go back to my seat when he grabs me. I look at him and he says “This performance, other than the one playing the princess, doesn’t have anything worth watching. Sit down and talk with me. I have something to ask you.”
“Yes, young master Huo.”
“Xiao Yu, I couldn’t tell you who I was back then, but you can still call me Xiao Huo”, he said with a touch of exasperation.
“You believe I’m a Han person now?”
“I don’t know, your appearance was inexplicably mysterious, you knew the Xi Yu territory intimately. You call yourself a Han, but you are not familiar with the Han world. If we weren’t on guard, would that be normal of us? After traveling with you a bit, I knew you had no ill intentions. But I was disguised on that trip to Xi Yu, so I still couldn’t tell you my real identity.” I keep my head lowered, knowing that what he said is true.
His softly asked “Xiao Yu, can you accept my explanation?”
I raise my head to look at him “I know the Xi Yu territory because I was raised in the wolf pack. We have the ability not to get lost in the desert. I never lived in Han territory which is why it’s foreign. I call myself a Han because I see myself as a Han here” and I point to my heart. “But maybe I don’t resemble anybody, and I belong in the wolf pack. This is all I can say for now. Can you believe me?”
He stared into my eyes and nodded his head “I believe. As for the rest, perhaps you’ll tell me one day.”
Only trusting someone will a person stare directly into the eyes, and Huo Qu Bing is that kind of person. After our eyes meet, I quickly turn away. I don’t want to probe into his thoughts, and don’t want him to probe into mine.
He asked “How long have you been in Chang An?” I replied “Half a year.”
He was silent and then asked “Since you deliberately prepared this performance, you must already know who I am. Why didn’t you come find me? What if I heard about the performance but still didn’t come?”
So he misunderstood that this performance was for him. He’s so self-absorbed and I smile mockingly at him “When I wanted to find you, I didn’t know where. And when I knew where you were, I thought it didn’t matter if I saw you again.”
He looked at me, and then his voice turned cold “What is the purpose of this performance?” His hands fisted suddenly “You want to enter the Palace? I thought you were an exotic desert bloom, but turns out you are yet another who wishes to become a Palace phoenix.” [Phoenix here means one of the Emperor’s concubines.]
I shake my head with a smile “No, I’m perfectly fine so why do I want to go to that godforsaken place?” His expression relaxed and he looked towards Fang Ru. I shake my head again “She’s innocent and just looking for a way to make a living. I doubt she’ll survive there.” He wondered “So it’s not this and it’s not that. What exactly are you thinking?”
I look at Fang Ru, playing the Princess, and confirm my target. He raises his eyebrows “Your idea is right on target then. The Princess has heard of “Hua Yue Nong” and asked me if I’ve been here and seen the person who choreographed the performance.”
He returns to watch the performance so we sit in silence. I move to excuse myself when he says “In this performance, everything is calculated and each lyric is well thought out. Yet earlier you left me and rushed outside to welcome the Big Boss of the Shi Enterprises. Aren’t you worried about upsetting me?”
I knew I was rash back there but I don’t regret it. “He’s my Big Boss, there is no reason I shouldn’t go and welcome him” He shot me a glance “Really? My position doesn’t measure up to a boss?”
Hong Gu enters and apologizes profusely to Huo Qu Bing, explaining that the Big Boss is quite angry and berating Wu Ye. I need to run so I shoot an apologetic look at Huo Qu Bing “I have to go. I can see you’re not a petty person, so don’t make it difficult for me right no. I have to go accept my punishment, so my situation is pretty dire as is.”
He replied “No wonder the Princess was confused as to why the Shi Enterprises was doing things differently. You are a bold one, without getting the approval of you boss, you put on a performance about the Imperial family’s private life.” I don’t respond but merely stand up. He suddenly said “Do you want me to accompany you?”
I startle and feel a soft warmth inside. I shake my head. He sends me a lazy smile and says with some teasing “Don’t bend over backwards. If Shi Enterprises doesn’t want you, my estate will take you.” I shoot him a glance before walking out.
I tell Hong Gu not to be afraid, I’ll take full responsibility. Xiao Feng lets me through and humphs at me “You need to think about how to explain yourself to Jiu Ye. No wonder Master San teaches me that a woman is hard to keep around.” I rap him on the head and scowl at him “You little rascal, you better not get married someday then.”
When I enter, Wu Ye is kneeling on the ground while Jiu Ye doesn’t appear upset. I walk up and also kneel. Jiu Ye sends Wu Ye away to await his punishment. He bows and tearfully tries to explain that he was raised by the family and just wanted to raise the prosperity of the family business.
Jiu Ye looks at me “You really surprised me. If you have such cunning, this Luo Yu House isn’t good enough for you. Instead of running a business, you decide to pander to the Imperial family. What are you getting at?” Wu Ye tries to explain that I am young and just want to attract more customers, and it’s his fault for not restraining me. Jiu Ye huffs that the performance is calculated in each and every lyric. If I wanted to grow the business, any old narrative will do. I chose such a big risk clearly because I had a bigger purpose.
I concede “I am purposefully trying to attract the attention of Princess Yangping so I can make a connection with her.” I explain my guesses for why the Shi Enterprises have fallen in recent times. It rose to prominence with the Bao family gained the Imperial favor. But with the fall of the Bao family and the rise of the Wei family, the business went along with it. I just want to build ties with the Wei family, currently the reigning power in court, to build the business back up.
Jiu Ye looks at me “Ms Jin Yu. The Shi Enterprises employ thousands of people who don’t have your cunning and wits, nor your ambition. I can’t afford to take this risk with you. From now on, I’m selling Luo Yu House and it will no longer have any ties to the Shi Enterprises. How you want to run it is your business. Tian Cao, let’s return home.” He looks calm but distant, acting like he doesn’t care a whit.
I stare in disbelief but he doesn’t give me another glance. Because we are kneeling in his path, he asked us politely to move aside with a voice as cold as ice, ice that can freeze a person’s heart. I stand up and rush out. I suddenly remember that he needs to get downstairs but hates letting others assist him. I turn back to find someone to show Tian Cao and Shi Feng how to operate the lift.
I’m reading the classics and thinking back to what Jiu Ye said to me. His words are true, but if I’m careful, there ought to be only positives to come of making ties with the Princess and the Wei family. Li Yan comes in with some wine, asking how long I plan to stay locked up inside. She wonders what I have in store for the Li siblings, they can’t just stay here doing nothing. I decline the wine she offers, finding in it a temporary solace that I have no need of. Li Yan takes a drink, appreciating how the drink can take a person away from their real life for awhile.
I tell her “I don’t know, originally I was intending to change the fortunes of the Shi Enterprises by getting the pieces ready, but then I discovered that no one wanted me to do so. It was all my unsolicited offering. Li Yan, did I do something wrong?”
Li Yan replies “Jin Yu, how can you say such stupid things. Life is a river and we are always fighting to go upstream and not get swept away. You can’t even hope to maintain Luo Yu House with the competition out there.”
I compliment her for being so observant despite being new here. She grabs my hand and asks to be candid with me. She knows my intention behind the performance and that is hers as well. She asks for my assistance. I tell her that even without my help, with her beauty and brains, she’ll achieve whatever she sets out to do regardless. Li Yan looks down and takes a drink of wine, looking deep in thought and solemn. Her beauty is astounding but now it comes with a downcast aura.
Fang Ru comes to ask if it’s true that we’ve been cut loose. Hong Gu enters and reveals that Shi Enterprises is planning to divest from all the dancing houses managed by Wu Ye, who is so distraught he’s inconsolable. Anyone with money can buy the dancing houses, and supposedly the money will be used to start a herbal business. Hong Gu is thrilled, because this means one less overseer.
I look down and ask if they are sure they want to follow me. Who knows where I will lead them? Hong Gu is sure. If we get in trouble and it’s off with our heads, mine is the first to go and they can all plead innocence or as accomplices. If we earn rewards and riches, I’m sure to share with them. She’s decided to stick by me, especially since I’m not stupid and is clearly not looking for trouble. Fang Gu revealed that she rejected a customer’s request to drink with him, but the man didn’t dare get angry with her, knowing that all the Wei family officials have been by to watch Fang Ru perform and even praised her. All Fang Ru knows is that she can say “no” now to customers, and that is because of me. I tell everyone that we should keep going forward then, keep trying to make money.
Hong Gu reveals that we’ve made so much money since I took over that we have enough to buy Luo Yu House. I don’t respond, and ask Li Yan to take a walk with me. Li Yan asks if I’m going over to the Shi Estate tonight? She finds it odd that the Big Boss doesn’t want to operate a steady business like dancing houses, and instead wants to venture into herbal medicines with lots of market pricing risk.
We walk by the lake where some girls are playing, breaking off branches from the willow tree to go make waves in the water. Li Yan looks momentarily displeased before excusing herself to go back. I ask the girls if the branches will grow if it’s planted in the soil. They explain the planting season has passed for the willow tree. I suggest having a gardner try, and explaining that breaking off healthy branches to play with is a waste of a it’s beauty. These girls grew up here and don’t understand and appreciate the verdant beauty of nature.
I think about Papa, about Xi Yu, about the desert, sitting by the lake and looking out in a daze. I recall Li Yan being unhappy about the broken branches, but she doesn’t appear to be someone who is maudlin about nature. Her background is a mystery, and then I suddenly have a clarity about who she might be. I let out an “Ah”, and then there was also a shout from behind me. I turn around and Huo Qu Bing is behind me. I turn so quickly that I almost collided with his chest, so I jumped backwards. Then realized that the lake was right behind me, so I tried to turn again but couldn’t find a spot.
Huo Qu Bing reached out to grab my hand, but since I jumped so far back, our hands barely touched each other before I fell into the lake. I learned how to swim from Brother Wolf, which is what might be termed the “wolfy paddle”. It’s the exact opposite of elegant, stylish, and beautiful. I swam towards the shore while Huo Qu Bing stood by the banks and laughed at me. He was laughing so hard he was clutching his belly and almost toppled over. “You really were raised by wolves. This stroke, this stroke, hahahahahaha, all you need to do is stick your tongue out……..” The rest of what he was saying was drowned out by his laughter.
I was so mad that I paddled and stuck my tongue out at him like a wolf. I’ll let him laugh himself to death. He let out a yelp and then covered his eyes, crouching on the ground with his head lowered, just laughing.
I reach the shore and he reached his hand out to help me up. Initially I wanted to ignore him, and then changed my mind and grabbed his hand. But then I took a deep breath and fell back into the water. Surprisingly he didn’t resist, and his hand only tightened before his body followed mine into the water. Once I got my evil way, I wanted to let go of his hand, but instead he held on tight. Underneath the water, we stared at each other. His hair billowed out around his face, making his smile seem even more carefree.
I kick the water and head towards the surface. He holds my hand and swims up as well. As we reach the shore, he still hasn’t let go of my hand. I use my free hand to pinch him but he grabs it, now holding on to both my hands. I decide to use that momentum and kick him down there. He notices my devilish look and looks down, letting go of my hands “Why are you so evil, woman! If you actually kicked the target, I’d be through with this world.”
I hold on to the edge of the shore and heave myself out of the water. My clothes are plastered to me. I can hear him chuckling in the water. I rush back to the house without looking back. As I was changing clothes, I told the maid outside “Inform the entire house that if the young master Huo’s servant asks for clean clothes, no one is allowed to give it to him. You can say this is my orders. All the male clothes are being washed, but we have plenty of female skirts. You can give him one or two of those.” She quizzically agreed and ran off. I brushed my hair in the copper mirror and started to smile. Daring to make fun of me in my territory, let’s see who is the embarrassed one now.
At dinner time, Hong Gu asks me “Today the young master Huo entered the house with a frigid expression, didn’t even watch a single performance and promptly disappeared. His servant asked for clean clothing, but since you already gave the order, we were all torn. Afraid he’d get so pissed he would smash the house down. The entire Chang An city knows that upsetting the Great General Wei is no big deal, but pissing off the young master Huo, one ought to get ready to for a funeral.”
I smile and give Hong Gu some vegetables “So did you give or not?” She made a sad face “Didn’t give, but I almost died of fright. I don’t care how you two play around, but don’t get us random people involved. A woman can’t be frightened, we’ll age really fast.”
I muffled my laughter “So did you see the young master Huo?” She responded “No, later his servant ordered a carriage out back and told everyone to leave. Since he left….but…..but….” I asked “But what?”
She started laughing now “But….wherever the young master Huo walked is like that area has been rained on. The room he stayed in, the entire pallet is soaked through, and the seat cushion as well.” I tossed my chopstick and put my hand on the table, holding my stomach shaking in laughter.
The current Han Emperor is a devotee of Confucius, especially in the learnings about “etiquette.” So says “Morals stem from etiquette. Clothing is the basis”, one’s clothes becomes the most fundamental requirement of every citizen in Chang An. Since Huo Qu Bing is always perfectly dressed and groomed, looking dashing, this time he must be in a bind. If any of the rich and powerful in Chang An accidentally saw him, he would become the laughingstock of the court.
I recall his always fearless gaze, and then feel like it’s wrong of me to laugh. Would he care? No, he wouldn’t. He’s not a man who would be constrained by his clothing. He’ll avoid being seen, but if he is, he’ll just put on a poker face and act like he doesn’t see the other person. It’ll make the other person wonder if he’s dressed incorrectly himself, and that a “wet, damp look” is suddenly en vogue in Chang An. Or he’ll just laugh it off, letting the other person realize it’s just not a big deal.
The wind whips through my ears, this is the first time I’ve run full speed since arriving in Chang An. I’m almost tempted to let out a long howl. Arriving at the Shi Estate, I loss a rope and climb over the walls. The second my feet touch the ground, two men are on me. I try not to hurt them but they are not weak, pining me against the wall. I call out “Shi Buo, it’s Yu Er.”
He called off the guards and asked me why I didn’t use the perfectly good front door. I took off my face veil and pouted, but didn’t answer. He sighed, not understanding us youngsters. He told me to go find Jiu Ye, who is likely still awake. I tease that I came to see him, causing him to laugh, but he begs old age and needing sleep, taking off.
I take off towards the Bamboo Forest, where a flute is playing. The light is on in the residence and his shadow is inked on the windows, seemingly lonely and cold. I stand outside and finish listening to him play. I’m right outside the window where his shadow is on the paper panes. I reach out my hand but then lower it, back and forth, until finally my fingers lightly brush his shadow face. This is your eyes, this is your eyebrows, this is your nose, this is….this is your lips. I lightly touch it and my heart flips. I quickly move aside and touch between his eyes. I can’t see, but I know this area is filled with worry. Can I be the wind, and blow that worry away? You are his shadow, you must know what he’s thinking about? Please tell me what worries him so? Tell me!
The window softly opens and his face appears before me. My hand is suspended in mid-air, but so close to his face. So close that I can almost feel his body heat, but in the end I still don’t make contact. I have this indescribable feeling in my heart – happy or sad? I sheepishly smile at him and pull my hand back, putting it behind my back. He smiles “How long have you been here?” “I just arrived” I say.
He invites me in since it’s foggy outside. I got inside and he puts his flute down on the table. I see the oil lamp flickering a warm light, taking out my silver hair piece and I tamp down the extra specks of popping oil to make the light calmer. I ask why he’s using oil rather than wax, is he learning to be like commoners? He replies “There is a saying “Oil popping, Happy tidings arriving”. My heart leaps but I pretend to be calm “So is it true or not?”
He lifts a corner of his lips but doesn’t answer. “There is also a saying that the oil lamp can avoid ghosts, shining a blue light on the spirits to identify them. When the lamp turned blue is when I opened the window, and you were standing there. Did you feel anything next to you?” I laugh “I hear ghosts love handsome young man, sucking their yang essence dry. You ought to beware.” His reply “So it’s true that you aren’t afraid of anything in this world. Is there anything you are afraid of then?” I almost say “You!” but I was afraid to, not wanting to ruin this teasing mood under the lamp.
I tease that Xiao Feng revealed he knew medicine, asking if his services can be used if anyone in my house got sick. He laughs that being a sick child he saw so many doctors he naturally learned their craft just by observing. I feel a bit sad to hear this and look at the window. If someone was looking at us from outside, they would see two reflections in the window, close together. He asks why I’m smiling and I say no reason, I just want to. I ask why he’s smiling, and he answers the same thing.
We quietly sit next to each other. I take the flute and try to play a few bars of poor tune. He looks slightly odd and I realize that the flute is still damp from his playing. I feel a sense of happiness and put the flute back on the table. After some time, he tells me to go to sleep since it’s late. I’m surprised he still wants to let me stay here, and he responds that that room has always been empty so keeping it for me is no big deal. Running my business simply means it’s not convenient for me to stay here all the time.
I ask again why he doesn’t want to run the dancing houses, and whether he would object to me buying the dancing houses he’s giving up on? He doesn’t care, as long as I can afford to buy it, once it’s sold it will have no further ties with the Shi Enterprises. We will each run our own business. I angrily stare at him, the more he wants to clearly define the boundaries between us, the more I’m going to make it as complicated as possible. I ask him to lend me money. He agrees to lend me money enough to buy Luo Yu House, telling me to be satisfied with just that.
He smiles “Yu Er, the waters of Chang An are deep, and I’m already forced to carry that bucket of rancid water. But you can live clean and free. So if you want to run a business, just be satisfied with running Luo Yu House.” I pout “It’s not that easy, if I don’t encroach on others, others will encroach on me. Will Tian Xiang House let Luo Yu House survive?” He promises that he’ll make Tian Xiang House leave me alone.
I realized that he could still help me. I tell him “Jiu Ye, I don’t want to be the silk growing on the tree. The silk can only survive because of the tree, which blocks all the wind and rain for the silk. But won’t the tree grow tired, or if the rain is too strong the tree needs some help too. The silk can only watch and do nothing. I don’t want to survive needing to rely on the tree. I also want to be the tree that can help the other trees nearby block the wind and the rain, then enjoying the sun together, admiring the beautiful rainbow that appears after a storm.”
When I finish, I wonder if what I just said was akin to saying I wanted to accompany him, causing my face to burn up. The look in his eyes is so conflicted and he keeps looking at me. My heart does flip flops and I lower my head. After a few moments he said “Yu Er, you do what your heart tells you to do.”
I raise my head in happiness and stare at him. He smiles “But I will only lend you the money to buy Luo Yu House. If you want to be a tree, you’ll have to use your own capability to battle with the rain and winds.” Since he won’t lend me all the money, I tell him I’ll find a way. He is looking forward to what I’ll do.
When I ask why he decided to enter the herbal medicine business, he tells me that since we’ve drawn our boundaries, from now on neither will inquire into the other’s business. My warm heart suddenly dropped a few degrees. I stare at him, wondering if I asked something wrong? He gives me a look of mild exasperation “Yu Er, you are not the same as me. What I’m doing is what is best for you, And what is best for those dancing houses.”
“What is different between us?” He doesn’t answer and tells me to go to sleep, he’s tired as well. He does look tired and I quickly get up “I’ll be going then.” He takes the lamp and puts on a new candle wick for me. I take it and bow to him, walking back to my room with the lamp in my hand.