We all knew Yu Er would see Yi Zhi Xie again, and their almost reunion on the streets of Chang An was forestalled because she had Huo Qu Bing to protect her. This normally fearless girl was frightened out of her wits, reminding us that her past is such an emotional scar on her despite how she hides it and puts up a brave and ballsy front. While the politics and war in Da Mo Yao are fought between countries, Yu Er is so closely tied to both the Han and the Xiong Nu that she’s going to get embroiled in more messes than she cares to handle. For now she has made friends in Chang An, people who care about her and want to take care of her, from Hong Gu, Jiu Ye and the folks at the Shi Residence, and Huo Qu Bing. In doing so, she really is living the promise she made to her father, to let it all go and try to find her own happiness. Too bad happiness doesn’t come easily, and heartbreak sometimes comes much too suddenly.
Chapter 9: Heart Song
Normally I would send someone to Tian Xiang House to find out where Yi Zhi Xie went. But the normally thorough me did not do that, instead choosing to stay in and go out less. I practice my flute or play games with the girls. Am I purposely avoiding and forgetting? Even with so many years that pass, I’m still afraid to face it. With these thoughts, I keep playing a tune that explains my confusion.
A voice rang from outside the window “I didn’t want to bother you until you finished that tune, but why does it go on forever?” as he rapped the door.
I lower the flute “Door is not locked, come in.” Huo Qu Bing opened the door and entered, picking up the flute to twirl it around “What were you playing just now? It sounded familiar, but I can’t seem to place it.”
I’m glad he doesn’t pay attention to these things and release a pent up breath. I take back the flute and put it back in the box “What do you want?” He looked at me carefully “To see how you are doing?” I raise my spirits and give him a laugh “I’m fine.” He asks “Hiding in the house all day long is fine?” I stare at the table “I feel like not going out.”
He suddenly sticks his head in front of my face, eyes pinning mine as he asks “Were those books you asked me for, meant for Li Yan?” He changed the subject so quickly it took me a second to register, before turning my head and answering yes.
He softly whispers in my ear “Did you read it?” His warm breath against my ear causes my face to turn red, and in my sudden nervousness, I shove him away. He touches his chin and stares at me, grinning, and his stares makes me uncomfortable all over. I jump off the pallet “I have things to do, you hurry up and leave.”
He slowly stood up “A woman’s mood changes faster than the desert weather. It was sunny just a minute ago and now it’s blanket by sand and storm.”
I open the door without a word and stare at him, indicating he needs to go. His expression hardens and he coldly walks past me. As I’m closing the door, he turns back “Your frigid expression makes a person’s insides tingle.” I glare at him and shut the door with a bang.
As I’m thinking angry thoughts about Huo Qu Bing, suddenly there is a rap at the door. I ask “Why are you back?” and Hong Gu responds “Where else should I be if not here?”
I laugh and open the door “I was just so annoyed at someone and my anger isn’t directed at you.” She’s happy to see me lively again after being so down and mopey for the last few days. I startle, having been annoyed by Huo Qu Bing, I was so busy being upset that most of my anxiety these past few days have mostly dissipated. Did he…..did he do it on purpose?
Hong Gu and I walk and discuss new business opportunities when suddenly there is a young man harassing a dancer in the courtyard. Hong Gu and I try to intervene, and when the man turns around and sees me, he orders me to halt since I’ve already turned to leave.
I pretend not to hear and rush off. She rushes to my side and grabs my arms, but I shake her off and take off sprinting. She cries behind me in Xiong Nu language “Big sister Yu Jin, I know it’s you, I know it’s you……” As she talks her voice is already a woman’s voice filled with tears.
I stop but still don’t turn around. She walks up to me and takes a deep breath “It’s just me here goofing off, the Shan Yu is not here.” I turn and face her, the two of us assessing the other person. We don’t talk, and Hong Gu takes the dancer and they quickly leave.
“Why are you still the same way? Behaving so boldly in Chang An? Deciding to harass a lady?” I ask with a laugh. Mu Da Duo suddenly grabs me and starts crying “They are said you were dead. They all said you were dead. I cried for an entire year. Why did Yu Dan swear to the Heavens until the day he died that you were dead?”
I thought I was strong, but my eyes fill with tears, so I bite my lips not to let it fall. “Yu Dan, Yu Dan….you saw him before he died?”
Mu Da Duo cries and nods “The Shan Yu didn’t believe you were dead in the beginning. He knew how close we were as kids, so he sent me to go search for you. But Yu Dan told me that you died, and he buried your corpse in the desert.” I hand her a handkerchief but am too afraid to ask what happened after Yu Dan was captured.
“Big sister, are you a dancer here? How much money will it take to buy your freedom?” Mu Da Duo asks as she wipes her tears. “This house is mine, I run it.” I give her a warm smile.
Mu Da Duo hits her forehead and laughs “I’m so stupid. No one in this world can force big sister to do what she doesn’t want to do.”
I have a slight smile but don’t laugh out loud, so Mu Da Duo’s smile disappears. She grows somber “Big sister, the Shan Yu did not kill Yu Dan. Yu Dan got sick and died.”
I coldly laugh “Got sick and died? Is that what happened? Yu Dan played with us since we were kids, has he ever been sick or weak? As a joke we once pushed him in the lake in the dead of Winter, causing us to catch a cold, but he was perfectly fine.”
Mu Da Duo continues to hurriedly explain “Big sister, it’s true. If the Shan Yu wanted to kill Yu Dan, he could have done it when he captured him. But the Shan Yu gave strict orders to capture you guys alive. Otherwise why would you guys be chased for days and nights on end? And you don’t know, but when the Shan Yu learned that you guys were injured during the pursuit, he was so furious that his face turned white. I have never seen the Shan Yu that angry before, which frightened the entire army of warriors to get on their knees. The Shan Yu refused to believe that you were dead, he kept questioning Yu Dan over and over again about how you supposedly died. But Yu Dan’s explanation was so believable. The Shan Yu flipped the entire Xi Yu territory upside down but he couldn’t find you. All the roads leading to the Han were manned by extra guards, but no one saw someone like you. So later we believed what Yu Dan said.”
I coldly reply “I don’t care about this. Even if Yu Dan died of a sickness, but my Papa and Yu Dan’s mom, don’t tell me they killed themselves? Who caused all of this? Even if he didn’t kill them, they died because of him.”
Mu Da Duo’s tear fall and she shakes her head “Big sister, I don’t understand why Teacher would kill himself. The Shan Yu kept trying to convince the Teacher to stay and assist him. If Teacher refused, he can ask the Shan Yu to let him go, so why did he kill himself? That day I had just gone to sleep when I heard a commotion, someone screaming “The former Queen has killed herself.” A few moments later, another shout “Teacher has killed himself.” I was thinking of big sister so I didn’t even go see the former Queen and went to see Teacher, crying and running there. I saw the Shan Yu running out, not even wearing shoes since he had just laid down to rest. He was barefoot in the snow, and when he saw Teacher’s body, his knees almost buckled and fell on the ground. Everyone was so frightened and tried to assist him, but he ordered everyone back. He stayed by Teacher’s body for the entire night. Big sister, when the Shan Yu amassed his own army and became a self-annointed Shan Yu, I initially really hated him, hated that he stole Yu Dan’s place. But that night, I saw him lonely in that tent. It was snowing outside and we were all cold even by a fire, but he was inside just wearing one thin robe, not moving until sunrise. There was no happiness in his eyes, only sadness and pain. It was cold out, but his heart was even colder. I snuck a peek at him from outside and stopped hating him at that moment. I felt like he must have had a reason to do what he did. And I really believe that he is more suited to be our Shan Yu than Yu Dan was. This is all what I personally saw, I’m not lying to big sister. Later the Shan Yu, despite the protests of the officials, ordered a Han funeral for the Teacher.”
An enormous pain ate at my heart and I clutch my chest. I close my eyes and remember hearing the news of Papa’s death near the Bang Lian Mountain. It was that painful then, like my heart was being eaten alive, and today that scene comes right back to me.
After Yu Dan left me, I didn’t go to the Central Plains like I promised Papa. I hid in the wolf pack, and tried to find a way to get close to Papa. With the help of the wolves, I avoided detection time and again. I thought I could reach Papa and I can take him with me. But as I was about to see Papa, I heard the news of his death.
It had been snowing for three days and three nights already, the snow to my knees. But the snow wouldn’t stop falling. It was white, the world was white. Yu Dan was dead, his mother was death, Papa was dead, the Yi Zhi Xie in my heart was dead. I sobbed while running in the snow, but no one appeared. The tears turned into ice on my face and my skin cracked, and my blood mixed with my tears, turning it into red ice tears.
A 12 year old me, running in the snow for one day and one night, finally collapsing in the snow from exhaustion. The snow flakes fall on my face and I look skyward, not moving because I have no strength. I felt like everything is fine, and soon I won’t be hurting anymore. Let everything end in this pristine whiteness, without a hint of blood.
Brother Wolf found me and used his claws to brush the snow off me, trying to pull me away but he was too small then and couldn’t move me. So he just crawled on my chest and used his body to shield me, licking me face, my hand, trying to give me warmth. I tell him to leave, otherwise he’ll freeze to death, too.
He stared at me, and the way he looked at me was the way Papa looked at me, telling me to survive. I remembered what I promised Papa, that I will survive no matter what happens to me. And I will be happy. Because Papa’s only wish for me was that I survive. I look into Brother Wolf’s eyes “I was wrong, I want to survive, I must survive.” Thank Heavens the wolf pack arrived just in time, and the snow stopped. I was saved by the wolf pack, who used their bodies to keep me warm and the warm blood of their prey to invigorate me.
I suddenly yell out “Don’t talk anymore! Mu Da Duo, this is just the past for you, but it’s forever a scar on my heart. It was so bloody, and now it has finally become a scab that doesn’t bleed anymore. Why is your appearance ripping apart all my scars? Go back! Remember our childhood friendship and pretend that you never saw me. There is no Yu Jin in this world now for a long time. She really has died, died in that big snow storm.”
I turn to leave but she grabs my sleeve “Big sister, big sister…..”
Before leaving the Xiong Nu – Yu Dan, Ri Chan, Mu Da Duo, and I were the closest of friends. Because of Papa, Yu Dan and I were even closer. When Yu Dan, Ri Chan, and I went out to play, we didn’t like to bring Mu Da Duo. She would stare and I would tease her, to call me big sister and I will take her along. She stubbornly refuses because I don’t know my age so why should she call me big sister. But she would still tag along behind us. Over time, we became closer because we had the same stubborn wild personality, loving to make mischief. One day I picked my age and had her call me big sister, and that time she agreed. Turned out that she did so because she thought I would do whatever she wanted if she called me big sister.
Her calling me big sister made my heart soften, so I explained “I am doing fine now, and I don’t want to go back, and I can’t go back.” She understood I didn’t want to see Yi Zhi Xie, and she promised that she would keep this encounter a secret from him. I grab her hand “Thank you. When are you going back?” She happily grabbed me “Tomorrow, so today everyone was busy and I snuck out to play.”
I laugh “I’ll show you around, and have the kitchen whip up some Han specialties, as a farewell of sorts.” She wonders if we will meet again? Looking back, the past is clear, but we can no longer find the way back. I bitterly say “I hope not. It is impossible for me to see Yi Zhi Xie with a smile. And you’ve already chosen him. If we meet again, it’ll be difficult for you.”
Her face turned red and she looked down, leaving me understanding how much she has chosen him “Are you his consort now?”
She shook her head “He treats me so well, so his Queen hates me. He let me tag along on this trip even though no one wanted it. If he asked me to be his consort, I would gladly agree.” She snuck a slightly chastened look at me.
I smiled, she’s a proud and free Xiong Nu woman, who loves who she loves without shame. “Don’t worry about me, regardless of our friendship, if you want to choose Yi Zhi Xie, that is your life. I just don’t want to ever see him again.” She asks if I want to kill him? I shake my head “Not at this moment. I struggled at lot, and now things have finally settled down. In the future…..in the future I won’t either, as long as we never meet again. Mu Da Duo, it’s not me who wants to kill him, it’s whether he wants to kill me. Sometimes you have to make a clean break. Just like he would rather see my Papa commit suicide and feel guilty about it afterwards, but he wouldn’t give my Papa a way out.”
She tried to argue that he never wanted us dead, never ordered it. I reassure her “What are you worried about? That I would go kill him? He can kill me easily, he is the Xiong Nu’s number one warrior, and now the Shan Yu of the entire Xiong Nu kingdom. To kill him would make me the enemy of the entire Xiong Nu. Then my entire life would be mired in this hatred and bitterness. Papa only wanted me to find someone who loves me, who would protect me and make me happy. He didn’t want me spending my life seeking vengeance. Mu Da Duo, if one day I see Yi Zhi Xie again, the likelihood is that I will die. You don’t need to worry about him. If he finds out I’m still alive, whether I can remain standing here in Chang An is a question.”
She promised never to tell anyone I’m alive.
It’s another New Year’s Eve, and I’m writing on my cloth diary again, about how happy I am that Jiu Ye has called me over, which is the first time he has took the initiative to ask me to go see him. I look into the chest and the clothes have become a big stack by now. When will I be able to convey the thoughts on these clothes to him?
I first go wish Shi Buo and Shi Feng a happy new year and banter with them before heading to the Bamboo Residence. When I arrive I smell plum blossom, which surprises me since Jiu Ye doesn’t plant these flowers. On the table is a vase with a white plum blossom, beside it are two wine cups and two chopsticks, plus a bottle of wine warming on a pit. I ask what delicious food he’s planning to treat me to, and he tells me to wait and see.
He invites me to sit down next to him, asking “Does your shoulder still hurt?” I give an “ah” before looking quizzically at him, telling him it doesn’t hurt anymore while nodding my head. He stopped “Does it hurt or not?” I shake my head “Just a little hurting.”
He smiled “Why don’t you figure out if it hurts or not, because right now your gestures don’t match your words.” I chide myself for being useless and explain “It was hurting before but not much anymore.”
He tells me “Busy running a business doesn’t mean you neglect yourself. It’s cold out and everyone is bundled up in layers except for you. No wonder you are constantly complaining about having a sore throat, neck pain, or shoulder ache.”
I stare down at the wine cup, with a hidden smile, secretly feeling happy. Shi Feng brings two big bowls of noodles, leading me to ask if that is all he’s feeding me. He explains the noodles signifies long life, so he wants to use this bowl of noodles to celebrate my birthday and wish me a long life. I explain it’s not my birthday.
He gently says “Everyone should have a special day, and since you don’t know your birthday, let’s just use today! Last year we met again on this day, so it’s a good day. It’s also the first day of the year, so from now on, everyone will be celebrating your birthday with you when they celebrate new year.”
My voice is stuck in my throat and I can’t speak, so I shovel the noodles in my mouth while he sits besides me and watches. The noodles are fragrant and delicious, and when I eat it, it warms me entire body up. Usually all I love are meat, but this is the first time I think noodles are the most delicious food in the world.
The sun sets early in the Winter and soon the room is dark and he lights a lamp. I know I should leave but I am loathe to go. I finally get up the courage to tell him that I am learning a new tune and it sounds better than before.
He takes out his flute and wipes it before handing it to me. I lower my head and play the new tune, which is a song about a woman wondering when she will have a chance to ride in the same boat as the prince, and whether the prince knows how she feels about him.
I practiced this song thousands of time, but when I’m playing I’m so nervous that the tune shakes. When I’m done, I keep my head lowered, holding the flute. I sit there without moving, worried that if I make any move I will break something.
Silence. Dead silence. The air appears to bind together and the flames have stopped flickering, turning dark.
“Even though it’s a foreign to me, the tune is nice. But you didn’t play it well. It’s dark so you should get going!” Jiu Ye lightly responded.
Before I even felt the pain, there was a tear in my heart. A few moments later, that pain radiates outward and slowly seeps into every pore of my body. It hurts so much my body is shaking. I raise my head to him and he meets my eyes before immediately turning away. I stubbornly stare at him but he keeps staring at the vase with the white plum blossom. The unvoiced question of “why” is clearly in my eyes, but he pretends not to notice.
He’s not going to pay you any more attention, so let’s go! At least it’s not completely over, I can leave with a shred of dignity. That is what my heart is telling me, but I stubbornly cling on to the final hope that he will raise his head and look at me one more time.
After a long time, I silently get up and walk outside. When I reach the door, I remember that I am still holding the flute. I am grasping it too tightly and my nails have pierced my palm and it’s bleeding. The blood gets on the flute.
I turn back and put the flute on the table before walking out.
In the dark, I walk aimlessly. How to get back to Luo Yu House I don’t even remember. All my mind can hear are the words “Even though it’s a foreign to me, the tune is nice. But you didn’t play it well” over and over again.
Why? Why? He doesn’t have any feelings for me? But then why does he treat me so well? Why would he wait for me under the lamp when I’m late coming home? Why does he remember every one of my small ailments? Why does he talk to me so gently and tenderly? Why celebrate my birthday with me? Why? So many whys leave my head feeling like it’s going to explode.
New Year’s Eve has every family hanging a red lantern outside their house. The warm red light illuminates the street and the air smells like fragrant food. Everything is warm and happy, reaching out I can see joy everywhere. But looking down all I can see is my own lonely shadow, swaying in the lantern light.
A few small kids are lighting fire crackers by the side of the street, the crackers letting out a “pop, pop” sound. The kids laugh and are merry, plugging their ears and hiding in the corner to wait for the big explosion.
I walk right past the fire cracker when it suddenly goes off. A bit of the flames land on my skirt, and with a breeze, it catches on flre. The kids realize they did something bad and take off running. I stare numbly as the fire grows bigger, before realizing what is happening. I hurry to use my hands to pat the flames but it doesn’t extinguish. Right when I’m so nervous that I’m about to lay on the ground and roll around to extinguish the flames, suddenly a large cloak is striking my skirts. A few taps and the fire has been extinguished.
[Sorry, jumping on the plane now.]