This might just be the best chapter of Da Mo Yao so far. Might, but I can’t say for certain because I love this novel so much it’s hard to play chapter favorites. But this chapter rocks so hard it should win a prize for effectively blending action, romance, and emotional angst into one perfect package. If Huo Qu Bing and Yu Er jumped the gun in the last chapter (so like their personalities to be impetuous and passionate), then this chapter is when they finally understand how deep and strong their feelings are for each other. All it takes is one Yi Zhi Xie to get the ball rolling.
Chapter 21: First Kiss
Huo Qu Bing and I walked ahead, while Brother Wolf and Snow Lady followed behind me. Little Princess would sometimes run ahead to chase a butterfly, run next to me to make me carry her, or mimic her parents and walk leisurely besides us.
After spending more than two days together, Snow Lady has lowered her caution towards Huo Qu Bing and doesn’t stop him from getting close to Little Princess as long as I’m around. “If we continue down this road, we will be headed towards the chief Xiong Nu tribe’s territory. Even though they have lost many battles, but there are likely troops nearby and it might be hard to avoid running into them.” Huo Qu Bing smiled and reminded me.
I replied “I know. The Xiong Nu live along the water ways, and the Qi Lian Mountains are the Xiong Nu’s most beautiful and fertile lands. The Xiong Nu army might have been defeated, but the nomadic Xiong Nu herders who live here are likely loathe to depart. Even if we don’t run into the army, we’ll likely run into some herders.” He asked quizzically “You said we were going to see someone. Is it a Xiong Nu person?”
I glanced at him “What if it is a Xiong Nu person?” He confidently laughed “Yu Er, smile. This whole way your expression has gotten more and more somber. Who cares if it is a Xiong Nu person. Even if it is the Shan Yu of the Xiong Nu, I will gladly go with you to meet him.”
He looked at my outfit “But I don’t think it is a Xiong Nu person. Of the outfits I got you, there was a Han outfit, and various Xi Yu outfits, and even a Xiong Nu outfit. You chose a Gui Su outfit, and the Xiong Nu outfit was the first outfit you tossed aside, with a look of disgust.”
I lightly sighed “I ought to be wearing a Han outfit, but the Gui Su outfit comes with a face veil.” I checked him out “But it’s enough that you’re wearing it.”
Over one mountain and another, we traverse the dense woods. Brother Wolf has already realized where I am headed and he impatiently followed behind me and then rushed forward. He came back after some time and lowly growled to me. I immediately stop walking. Huo Qu Bing asked “What? Someone is ahead?” I nodded, hesitating for a moment before walking forward. Both the humans and the wolves silenced our footsteps.
Huo Qu Bing and I crouched down and moved behind the heavy brush. When I saw a figure in front of the gravestone, I immediately froze. Huo Qu Bing also stopped and peered out between the brush. There was one large gravestone and one small gravestone. A man was quietly sitting in front of the gravestone drinking alone. Behind him stood two guards a respectful distance away. Huo Qu Bing recognized the person sitting in front of the grave and turned to give me a questioning look. I only silently stared at Yi Zhi Xie sitting in front of the grave.
In the growth of the mountain side came the sound of insects buzzing. Bits of sunlight shone down on the grave through the tree tops and on Yi Zhi Xie, giving off a sense of isolation. He faced the grave and was quietly drinking. His shadow reflected his melancholy, with every raised cup he seemed to be drinking in his sorrow.
Yi Zhi Xie used his hands to fix the weeds around the grave. His two guards immediately stepped forward to do it but he silently waved them away. The two looked at each other and then retreated. My hand was unconsciously gripping the branch next to me, tighter and tighter. By the time Huo Qu Bing realized it and removed my hand from the branch, it was already covered in blood. Yi Zhi Xie cleaned both graves and then he poured a glass for the large grave and toasted it.
“Brother Xu, you ought to be happy today. Half of Qi Lian Mountains has already been stolen by the Han dynasty. Perhaps soon you will be resting here under Han owned earth. I hope you don’t mind drinking with me. You told me before that the nomadic tribes, compared to the agricultural communities, will always be at a disadvantage. In the short term, the nomadic tribes can use fast speed to conquer the agricultural cultures. But if the nomadic tribes don’t quickly adapt to an agricultural basis, the citizenry and the wealth will always not measure up. In the long run, it will lose to the agricultural communities. I asked you then, what if we adopted the agricultural way of life, and you said then we could potentially rule successfully. But then after a few generations, our nomadic culture and identity would disappear, and over time the nomadic descendants would become the minority and subject to discrimination. At that time I refused to accept this. Our Xiong Nu braves have lived like this for generations, and as long as we had warriors, we would never disappear that easily. But now I finally understand what you were trying to say. Things are happening now like you predicted. After a period of growth, the Han dynasty is rich and powerful. Compared to the Xiong Nu, we cannot match up in man power or wealth.”
Yi Zhi Xie poured another cup for Papa “In the past there was Wei Qing, and now there is a Huo Qu Bing. There isn’t a single commanding general in the Xiong Nu army. Our most revered riding forces were defeated by Huo Qu Bing. A General born in an agricultural community actually is a faster and more vicious than our soldiers who were born and bred on a horse. Because of him, the Han dynasty has changed from the defensive stance it kept during the General Wei Qing generation into one where they are on the offensive.”
He gulped his wine and sighed “These are just some worries, but what worries me the most is that all the armies are united under the Han Emperor, but all our armies are splintered into different tribes. On the surface all the leaders of the tribes bow to the Shan Yu, but they each have their own calculations. With one Huo Qu Bing, each tribal leader is afraid their troops will be sacrificed on the front line, hoping some other tribe will be deployed first. But all the waiting for others to fight their battles, we are just waiting for our own demise. On this alone we have already lost to the Han dynasty. But I will not give up, and I cannot give up. If I could have been born ten years earlier, before Liu Che ascended the throne and fixed our internal political structure, then today…… But the Heavens appears to not want to give the Xiong Nu anymore time. The Heavens appear to favor the Han…..”
I shot Huo Qu Bing a look. So he has become the most deadly and fearful enemy in the eyes of the Xiong Nu. Huo Qu Bing looked at my demeanor and asked if I understood what he was saying. I nodded my head. Yi Zhi Xie’s hand brushed over the small grave and rested there. He appeared to be deep in thought. After a long time, his hand remained on the grave.
Looking at his expression, I felt a sense of confusion. He shouldn’t be the one who sent someone to kill me. He doesn’t appear to suspect that I’m not dead. But…..I stopped. None of this was important, and I don’t want to waste any time thinking about it. He sat for some more time before finally getting up wordlessly and leaving with his retainers. I crouched for awhile longer before walking out of the woods and kneeling before the grave. “Papa, I brought someone to meet you.”
I looked at Huo Qu Bing and he immediately kneeled and bowed his head to the ground “Sir, I am Huo Qu Bing, and I am going to marry your daughter.” I initially had tears in my eyes, but when I heard his words, I laughed through my tears “How can you be so impatient? What if my Papa doesn’t like you?”
He smiled and looked over the tombstone “Was your father a Xiong Nu?” I shook my head “A Han.” He looked at the smaller grave and asked “Your sibling?”
Even though Yi Zhi Xie cleaned Papa’s grave, I still took out a cloth and thoroughly wiped it. Huo Qu Bing took the cloth from my hands “Let me clean it! If your Papa saw the wounds on your hands, he’ll blame me. If he gets angry, he might not marry you to me. That would be terrible.”
Huo Qu Bing finished wiping the grave and was about to wipe down the small grave when I stopped him “That one doesn’t need to be cleaned.” He looked confused but didn’t ask further. I was quiet for a moment “That is my grave.”
Huo Qu Bing stopped for a moment and then he understood everything “No wonder you were so frightened to see him in Chang An. You don’t want him to know you’re alive.” I nodded.
Brother Wolf circled the grave a few times before getting bored and running into the forest with Snow Lady and Little Princess. I sit on the ground “You conquered this Qi Lian Mountains, letting Papa rest on Han soil. Papa will surely like you.” Huo Qu Bing was a bit taken aback but smiled and bow three more times to Papa “Thank you for the praise, father-in-law.”
I was embarrassed and frustrated “How can there be someone like you, changing references so quickly and calling him father-in-law? My Papa was a carefree man but he was a stickler for etiquette.” Huo Qu Bing raised his eyebrow “You’re not very much like your Papa.”
I laughed and nodded “Yes, Papa said I am a wild one. I can’t endure those stupid rules created by people. Even now, if Papa saw me I would look like a upstanding person, and I can follow rules if I must, but really…..” Huo Qu Bing laughed and finished for me “You’re a wolf-hearted dog-livered person.”
I humphed at him “Thank you for the compliment. When I was small I thought people should use wolf-hearted and dog-livered as a compliment. Wolves and dogs are very loyal animals, and quite smart. I don’t understand why the Han use this as an insult.” Huo Qu Bing raised his head and starting laughing, which made my heart ache a bit “Many years ago when I said the same thing to Papa, he also laughed heartily like that.”
The sun is setting and the waning light shines on Papa’s grave, giving it a warm red aura. Huo Qu Bing stays by my side this whole time. Whatever I’m willing to say, he listens. Whatever I’m not willing to say, he doesn’t ask. Whenever I feel sadness rising, with just a few teasing words from him getting me all angry and laughing, he brushes it all away. I squint and look at the setting sun and think “Papa, you can finally rest your heart. With this person beside me, I won’t even have time to cry.”
Thinking of Yi Zhi Xie’s lonely figure before the grave, and looking at Huo Qu Bing gazing at me with eyes full of affection and care, I feel so many emotions inside. As our eyes met, he suddenly snapped his fingers and said angrily “If you keep looking at me like that, I will……” before I can avoid him he’s already kissed me on the cheek “…..take advantage of the moment.”
I angrily hit him and he laughs “Father-in-law, do you see how mean and bad-tempered Yu Er is?”
At that very moment, I finally let it all go. I let go of the past, let go of my hate towards Yi Zhi Xie. Papa, your daughter finally understands now what you have been teaching me. Only when you let it all go and walk forward can you find happiness.
Even though the Xiong Nu suffered a great defeat, the ordinary people continue on with their lives. The cows and the sheep continue to roam under the blue skies, the market places are still buzzing with activity. The Han, the Xiong Nu, and the various Xi Yu people are all gathered together to do business. A blind Xiong Nu man sits in the corner and plays a horse lute, singing a mournful song. Some listening to it looks despondent, while others are smiling, and some just sigh and throw down a few coins before hurrying away.
Huo Qu Bing tossed a silver bullion which caused everyone to look at me. I quickly pulled him away and he asked me in a low voice “What was that man singing about?’ I gave him a side long look “You.” He laughed “Me? Too bad I don’t understand Xiong Nu.”
I hum the tune and translate the lyrics “Loss of our Yen Zhi Mountains, causing our wives to lose all color; destroy our Qi Lian Mountains, causing our animals to have no shelter.” The song was simple but the words so true yet sad that even my singing is tinged with sadness. As we walked away, we see other people drinking and singing the blind man’s song. Huo Qu Bing glanced at the people singing “Now I know why you’re not happy even though we won the battle.”
I answered “I’ve never been interested in warfare nor would it make me happy. I’m not a pacifist, and when a battle is necessary I won’t hesitate. But the death and destruction in war still makes me afraid. When I was small I grew up in the Xiong Nu, but that doesn’t make me a Xiong Nu person.” He let out a sigh of relief “That’s good. When I heard you singing, I was a little worried about you.”
We entered a Han restaurant and the waiter asked if we wanted some wine. Huo Qu Bing stared at me while my face turned red, and he was awkward as well and declined, asking for just something to eat. He asked as we sat down “After we’re done strolling through here, anywhere else you want to go?” I shook my head “No. Either this place is different than when I was a kid, or I’ve changed in the way I see things.” He smiled “I think your feelings have changed. After dining let’s hurry back to base then.”
A drunken Xiong Nu man sprawled on the table and kept singing the blind man song and crying. Huo Qu Bing sighed “Why is it everywhere we go we hear this song?”
I pretend to make a startled expression and then tease him “Wow, this is even better than the literature and poems composed by the scholars. Looks like the Great General Huo’s name will spread along with this song. Who knows if this song will be passed on for thousands of years, so that when people in the future hear this song, they can imagined the Great General Huo’s power and valor. It will surely make them gape to witness such magnificence!” and I pointed to his forehead.
He lightly smiled and whispered in my ear “All I want is for you to gape at me.” Before I can tease him, he’s already teased me back. I breath in his smell and it makes my ears turn red. I quickly lower my eyes and focused on eating, avoiding looking at him.
The table next to us overheard me mention Huo Qu Bing and smiled at me and then toasted each other “This year is the year we Han people emerge victorious. In the Spring, General Huo used just ten thousand troops to capture Yen Zhi Mountain, and in the Summer he vanquished tens of thousands of Xiong Nu warriors to take Qi Lian Mountains.” The other person sitting at the same table smirked at the drunk Xiong Nu “When I came here to do business as a child with my father, those barbarians were arrogant and condescending to us Han people for being weak. We needed to send them princesses to keep them placated. Now look who is afraid to fight whom.”
Too bad the Xiong Nu man actually understood the Han language and got up in a rage, pointing to the two men “If you are a real Han man, then put your money where your mouth is. Let’s go outside and fight. If you win, I’ll give you my head and you can take it back to the Han dynasty to show off.”
The Xiong Nu are proud people who treat death lightly, so this man meant it. The two Han men gritted their teeth and accepted the challenge. I was just enjoying this showdown when Huo Qu Bing grabbed my hand and used his eyes to gesture outside. I looked out the window and startled for a moment before fixing my veil. The drunken Xiong Nu walked outside and ran into a band of Xiong Nu just walking by the store and said to them “Brothers on the plains, I am Hei Shi To and I am about to fight two men who insulted the Xiong Nu. The Hans don’t keep their promises so can you be my witness?”
Before Yi Zhi Xie can say anything, Mu Da Duo coldly huffed “Of course we can. Make sure they lose their heads.” The news has spread and more people have gathered. The two Hans are starting to look scared and shoot pleading looks at the owner, who cannot help them because he needs to do business here.
Huo Qu Bing asked in a low voice “What did they just say?” I replied “Those two Hans will likely not survive. This is annoying. If they want to fight, then hurry up and fight and stop blocking this place.” Huo Qu Bing laughed “If it wasn’t running into someone you’re afraid to see, you’d be the first to get in line to watch the showdown.” I huffed at him “I’ve already let that emotional burden go. I’m not afraid to see him anymore. But I don’t want to incur any trouble, so one less complication is better than one more.”
From the street another Xiong Yu yelled out that since there were two Hans, they will send out another Xiong Yu to even the competition. The man who agreed to fight Hei Shi To was calm, but his companion was trembling with fear. The crowd laughed at him, and even Huo Qu Bing shot them an icy look.
One man introduced himself to Huo Qu Bing as Yu Xun and his companion as Chen Li, they are from Long Xi. If they lose this competition, they want to ask Huo Qu Bing as a fellow Han to send word to their families. Huo Qu Bing stared at the quaking Chen Li and noted that Long Xi is known for birthing great warriors of past and present generations, so it’s quite odd to see someone not fit the mold. Yu Xun looked at Chen Li with embarrassment, when suddenly Chen Li pointed to me and shouted “Her! She insulted the Xiong Nu, she said it first. She complimented Huo Qu Bing. I merely added a few words.”
Even with my back to the public, I can feel a hundred eyes suddenly trained on me. Because I was a girl, they turned their rage to Huo Qu Bing. Mu Da Duo suddenly gave a small gasp and quickly said “My lord, we should get going! There are too many people here, we shouldn’t linger.”
Before she finished talking, Yi Zhi Xie was walking into the store and smiled at Huo Qu Bing “What a small world.”
Huo Qu Bing sat there without moving, not responding to Yi Zhi Xie’s greeting. Yi Zhi Xie’s guard rushed forward and angrily said “Meeting the young master in Chang An, I was already itching (for a fight). I am Tie Niu Mu, and I’ve got a bit of brawn and want to compete with the young master.” Huo Qu Bing continued to sit there without moving, ignoring them and only looking at me.
“Hahaha, the Hans are all like that. All talk and no guts.” The people outside started to snicker and someone sarcastically said “When he was talking about others, he seemed like a real man, turns out he’s just a pile of dirt.”
I softly sighed. If we can’t avoid it, might as well face it head on. I smiled at Huo Qu Bing “Don’t worry about me, just do what you want!”
Huo Qu Bing nodded and stood up to face Tie Niu Mu “Competing with you won’t be fair. Have the best rider and archer in the Xiong Nu come compete with me. If I lose, you can have my head. If you lose, from now on, in this town, the Xiong Nu can never be insulting to the Hans. I hear the Xiong Nu believe in keeping their word. I won’t worry about any promises not being fulfilled.”
Since Tie Niu Mu is Yi Zhi Xie’s personal guard, he must be one of the best warriors in the Xiong Mu. But for Huo Qu Bing to deem him not worthy to compete, he was so enraged that his face was turning blue. Just as he was about to say something, Yi Zhi Xie shot him a look. He could only clench his fist and shoot deathly glares at Huo Qu Bing, but said nothing.
A few hundred people are gathered outside the restaurant chattering like magpies. But faced with Huo Qu Bing’s confident aura, everyone grew quiet. A second later, the Hans started cheering and straightened their spines, shooting proud looks at the Xiong Nu.
A few Xiong Nu and Xi Yu people who didn’t understand the Han language asked around and got an explanation of what was said. They looked at Huo Qu Bing with newfounded admiration. Initially the Xiong Nu were each trying to be the one to compete, but now they looked at each other, unsure who had the ability to fight against him.
Hei Shi To yelled out “This lady may have complimented General Huo but she did not insult the Xiong Nu. General Huo is indeed powerful on horseback against us, and I have no choice but to admit he’s a real man’s man. If anyone wants to fight this young master, go ahead. But I’m still going to fight the other two guys and make them take back what they said.”
Huo Qu Bing bowed to Hei Shi To “if I lose, then those two will naturally apologize to you.” Chen Li quickly added “If he loses, then we will surely apologize.” Yu Shun looked at Huo Qu Bing and then me, before saying to Hei Shi To “If he loses, then my head will be my apology.”
The crowd gasped and Hei Shi To tempered his arrogance “Good man, I take back what I said earlier that the Hans can only talk but not act.”
There are more and more Xiong Nu gathered but no one continued to shoot derisive looks at the Hans. Everyone whispered as to who would compete. Tie Niu Mu was angry and impatient, the veins in his hand popping. But one look at Yi Zhi Xie’s face and he quietly stood still.
When Yi Zhi Xie last saw me, I was but 12 or 13 years old. Now I am full grown, my height and figure have greatly changed. Plus I’m wearing a veil and with my side profile to him. Yi Zhi Xie glanced over me before fixing his attention on Huo Qu Bing. His one glance over me caused Mu Da Duo’s face to whiten. She purposely refused to look at me, though she couldn’t help but sneak a peek, looking very torn.
Huo Qu Bing barely acknowledges everyone’s eyes on him. He calmly sits down and sips his tea, smiling at me “What if I lose my head?’ I smiled back “Then I’ll just have to follow you down into the ground.” Huo Qu Bing froze for a second, and without a care as to what other’s might think, he tightly grasped my hand. I grabbed his hand back, the two of us just smiling and staring at each other.
The people outside are starting to get loud about who will compete when Yi Zhi Xie suddenly spoke up calmly and quietly “Will the young master consent to compete with me?” His voice isn’t very loud, but suddenly all the arguing outside stopped. A thousand eyes turned to look at him. Seeing his aura, everyone stopped trying to argue for someone else.
All of Yi Zhi Xie’s guards kneeled down and tried to plead with him. Tie Niu Mu begged “My lord, he is not worthy of you personally doing this. Any one of us will be fine. If you don’t think I can do it, then let Zhen Tai go, I won’t fight for this opportunity with him.”
Mu Da Duo was staring at my hands entwined with Huo Qu Bing, her face a mixture of happiness and worry. When she heard what Yi Zhi Xie said, she gasped, seemingly wanting to plead with him but finally not saying anything.
Huo Qu Bing felt my hand stiffen, and he ignored Yi Zhi Xie’s question and quickly looked at me. Yi Zhi Xie’s riding and archery skills are the best of the best in the Xiong Nu. I thought he might notice Huo Qu Bing, but since he is the Shan Yu of the Xiong Nu, he will just send one of his warriors to compete. Who knew he was just like Huo Qu Bing, always pulling the unexpected. This really has become a life and death situation. But the person holding my hand is Huo Qu Bing. Even in the face of life or death, he would never back away.
I held Huo Qu Bing’s hand and suddenly smiled widely. He looked surprised and then smiled back at me. He held my hand and stood up, facing Yi Zhi Xie “I don’t have a horse or a bow and arrow. I will bother you to please prepare it.”
Yi Zhi Xie gave a small smile “If you lose, I don’t want your head. I just want you to work for me, and not as a master and servant. I will treat you like a brother, and I will still persuade the Xiong Nu of this region to respect the Hans.”
Yi Zhi Xie’s guards and Mu Da Duo all gasped, and the Xiong Nu on the street looked at Yi Zhi Xie, and then at Huo Qu Bing. Huo Qu Bing just laughed “What an honor to have you look upon me thusly. But I must apologize, I am a Han person and in this entire world, I will only work for the Han. If I lose, all I can give you is just my head!”
Yi Zhi Xie was silent for a moment and then smiled towards my joined hands with Huo Qu Bing “Your lady wife is a Gui Su person? The culture of the Gui Su and the Xiong Nu are quite similar…..” I cut off the rest of his sentence, lightly biting my tongue to say “Whatever he wishes to do, is what I wish to do.”
Yi Zhi Xie’s eyes flashed a sudden shock and he kept staring at my eyes. I smiled and directly met his eyes back. I didn’t avoid him, with no fear or hatred, just a look without any emotion. Like the look one might give a stranger who was staring.
Mu Da Duo was so nervous she was actually shaking. After some time, Yi Zhi Xie looked disappointed and a bit saddened, shaking his head and then turning to walk away. His guards hurried to keep up.
Huo Qu Bing and I held hands and followed behind them. Everyone on the street parted to let us through. The guards turned to look at me, shooting me pitiful and sympathetic stares. Mu Du Duo kept glancing at me, indicating that I need to leave. I pretended not to see and continued on my way.
Huo Qu Bing whispered to me “Is his archery skills top notch? Why are those guys staring at me like I’m a dead fish?” I smiled and nodded “Very top notch, the best of the best.” He says a soft “Oh” and then confidently continued to walk forward.
Tie Niu Mu brought over a horse with a bow and arrow. Huo Qu Bing picked up the bow and arrow and tried it out. He held the reins and looked at me. I smiled back “I will be here waiting for you.”
He leaped on the horse and with a brilliant smile “Wonderful Yu Er, thank you! With a wife like you, that is all I can ask for.” And then he was off, with the bow on his back, never once looking back.
Mu Da Duo sidled up next to me, staring into the distance, softly saying “Big sister, so that night on the streets of Chang An, we had already met. Shan…..my lord’s martial arts prowess is something you are familiar with. Aren’t you scared? He’s also a strange one. It’s clear to see how much he likes big sister, and this time out determines life and death, yet he never once looked back at you.”
I smiled but didn’t respond. How can I not be afraid? But there are some things in life that must be done even if there is fear.
In the sky, a flock of wild geese flew overhead. Yi Zhi Xie told the people setting up the targets to stop, smiling as he pointed to the sky “How about we use the flock of wild geese to determine the winner. In the time of half an incense stick, the one who shoots down more wins.” Huo Qu Bing smiled and nodded.
The incense was lit and the two of them took off towards the wild geese. Their first arrows were released at almost the exact same time. The two of them have to ride lightening fast and chase the geese which are flying everywhere, and they have to release their arrows quickly before the geese fly out of shooting range.
Such vivid competition far exceeds the excitement of watching arrows hit a target. Over a thousand people have gathered to watch, everyone is silent and holding their breaths watching the two men on horse back. All we can hear on the plains are the sound of horse hooves and the cries of the wild geese.
My worry disrupts me. I doubt there is anyone here with better eyesight than me, but I actually lose count of how many Huo Qu Bing has shot down. I glance at Mu Da Duo and she also looks distressed, shaking her head “I can’t keep count, I’ve already lost count. If I knew, I would have just counted Shan…..my lord’s hits.”
Initially I was nervously looking between Yi Zhi Xie and then Huo Qu Bing, crying out in my heart to hurry, hurry, please hurry. But suddenly I relaxed. If everything was already determined, then why fret. I stopped looking at Yi Zhi Xie and just stared at Huo Qu Bing. Whether it is him riding fast or the wild geese flying fast, I just quietly admire his stance on his horse and his form as he pulls the bow. Little by little, I engrave this image in my heart.
Half a stick of incense passes and there is a call of “Time’s up!” The two men immediately halt their taut bows and head back. Yi Zhi Xie’s guards are already collecting the dead geese. Everyone looks worriedly at the people collecting the geese. Yet Huo Qu Bing and Yi Zhi Xie pay no heed to that and ride back side-by-side just laughing and talking. Whatever they said to each other, it caused both of them to roar in laughter, showcasing their confident spirits.
After jumping off the horse, Yi Zhi Xie complimented Huo Qu Bing “What superb archery skills, what excellent riding skills!” Huo Qu Bing, who normally has no idea what the word modest means, actually bows back and laughs “Likewise, likewise.”
The guards have returned to announce the tally “The white arrow shot down twenty-two, the black arrow shot down….twenty-three.”
Everyone gasped out loud, some looking happy, others looking sad. My heart lurched and then immediately calmed. I give the most loving look towards Huo Qu Bing. When he hears the tally, he can’t help but smile. He turns to look at me, apologetic. I smile and nod to him, and he smiles and nods back.
Yi Zhi Xie solemnly gives a Xiong Nu respectful bow to Huo Qu Bing, very sincerely asking him “Please reconsider what I offered earlier.” He was bowing to Huo Qu Bing in the position of the Shan Yu, and everyone around him looked shocked and stunned. Huo Qu Bing laughed “I already said before that I am a Han person. I will only do what a Han person wants. I am willing to gamble and pay the price. You don’t need to say anything more.”
When he was done talking, he ignored everyone and took big steps towards me. In front of everyone he pulled me into his embrace, half lifted my veil, and lowered his head and kissed me. The buzzing around us ceased and turned to silence.
In the silent plains, even the wind appears to have stopped. All I can hear is his heartbeat and my heartbeat. Everything faded from my heart, so that in this entire world there was only him and me, me and him.
In a brief moment, it felt like an entire lifetime. From the first time I saw him and ours eyes met until this very moment, all these memories flashed through my mind. In this moment I finally knew, that in the little by little, in the unaware and the subconscious, he had already permanently carved himself on my heart.
At the cusp of losing him, I finally understood how much I fear losing him. My heart hurts, hurts so much that my body shakes in his embrace. But…..the heavens are cruel sometimes. So all I can do is use every ounce of my passion to kiss him back. Let him know my heart.
This is our first real kiss, and it will become be our last real kiss. He embraced me with all his might, and I embraced him back with everything I’ve got. But even the most intimate moments must end, and he slowly pulled away from my lips. He tenderly fixed my veil “Yu Er, promise me one thing, send my coffin back to Chang An, I don’t want to perish in a foreign land. And someone is there looking for…..” His eyes flashed pain and a complicated array of emotions, but he didn’t finish what he was saying. He warmly smiled “Promise me, you must go back to Chang An.”
I know he’s scared that I’ll do what I joked about earlier and follow him to the ground, so he’s purposely making me promise to do this. I could care less what he’s saying, but to make him at ease, I lightly nodded my head. But in my heart I had already decided.
My heart was shattering into a million small pieces, and each piece is like the sharpest pin that flows through my blood and making my entire body hurt. But I have to be brave and smile before him. I want the last thing he sees is a smiling me, a beautiful me. I don’t want him to worry about me.
He silently stared at me for some time, his eyes reflecting a million types of longing. In the end he kissed me on the forehead and slowly released me. He turned to Yi Zhi Xie’s guard and laughed “Can I borrow a large sword.”
The Xiong Nu may be bold, but everyone is still stunned to see this wholly brave and unheard of gesture. Mu Da Duo stares slack jawed and turns to look at me. I smile at her, and then leap to her side and grab the dagger on her waist. “I need to borrow this! And in a bit I’ll be needing to ask little sister a favor.”
Mu Da Duo’s face lost all color and she bit her lips, wanting to counsel me. But she turned to look at Yi Zhi Xie and she kept her silence. Yi Zhi Xie and his guards stood still for some moments before Tie Niu Mu unsheathed his sword. Huo Qu Bing accepted the sword and swung it towards his neck. I know I ought to shut my eyes, but I will never miss the final moment of looking at him. I open my eyes wide and suck in my breath. As the sword swung towards his neck, it also swung towards my neck. The scent of death comes toward us.
Yi Zhi Xie suddenly shouted “Wait a moment.” Yi Zhi Xie looked at the collected wild geese and the two guards who collected it. The two immediately knelt down. My heart lurched and I could care less about anything else at this moment. I rushed past Yi Zhi Xie and started flipping through the dead geese.
All of the white arrows penetrated the geese between its eyes, while all the black arrows hit the geese through the chest and straight for the heart. Except for one goose, which was shot between the eyes but it was a black arrow. I had my suspicions, but this is not something that can be proven, unless Yi Zhi Xie himself…..
Yi Zhi Xie was calm and he appears to have a small smile. He took a handkerchief from Mu Da Muo and cleaned his hands, smiling at the two men kneeling on the ground. A flash of silver light as fast as lightning, and one man had already lost his head, which rolled on the ground a few times. The onlookers all gasped and immediately fell silent, looking at Yi Zhi Xie with great fear.
Killing someone isn’t unusual for the warriors of the world to see. But to kill someone with a smile, so gracefully and without even seeming to dirty himself, is rare indeed. It was like he merely waved his hand and plucked a flower. The other kneeling guard was sprayed with blood but continued calmly kneeling without moving a muscle.
Yi Zhi Xie stared at his own sword until the last drop of blood fell. Then he put the sword back in its sheath. Calmly and gently he asked, like he was talking with a friend “Tell me the truth.”
The guard bowed and spoke with his voice shaking “When we were collecting the wild geese, because……we were too bold and plucked off a white arrow and replaced it with a black arrow when no one was looking.” Yi Zhi Xie smiled “You have been by my side for many years, you know what I hate the most.”
All the other guards kneeled, wanting to beg forgiveness but unable to speak. Tie Niu Mu looked at Mu Da Duo but she just shook her head. Yi Zhi Xie turned away from the kneeling guard and went to speak to Huo Qu Bing, apologizing “I can’t believe my servant would do something like this.” Huo Qu Bing replied “Brother you have quite the honorable spirit.”
The covered in blood guard bowed three times to Yi Zhi Xie’s back before grabbing a sword and stabbing himself through the chest. Everyone gasped but then quieted when Yi Zhi Xie looked around. Everyone looked down and avoided meeting Yi Zhi Xie’s eyes. Yi Zhi Xie glanced at the dead guard and said “Make sure his family is well taken care of.”
A competition has ended on this note, so that even if the Han onlookers are pleased, they still look upon Yi Zhi Xie with some trepidation. Everyone stays quiet or starts slipping away. The Xiong Nu look crestfallen and slowly shuffle off. The Xi Yu people are long used to being stuck between the fighting of the Hans and the Xiong Nu, so this isn’t anything new to them, and they all disperse as well.
With such a sharp rise and fall in what just happened, just then I was focused on letting him not worry about me since my mind was set, it was just a matter of who went first and who followed. But now my heart has relaxed, and the thought that if it was just one second later, he would have……before my eyes….. I just stare at him in a daze.
Huo Qu Bing is also staring at me, and when our eyes meet, we smile and start walking at the same moment towards each other. We reach for each other’s hand, and without a word, having the same thought, we turn and start walking away.
Yi Zhi Xie called out behind us “Please wait a moment. May I have your names?” Huo Qu Bing laughed “Just a chance encounter, if we are fated we’ll meet again. Our names are not worth mentioning.”
Yi Zhi Xie laughed “I am genuinely trying to make a friend in you both. Just a friend. Setting aside everything else, it’s been a long time since I met a kindred spirit, and enjoyed myself so much. I would like to treat you both to a feast and we can get drunk.” Huo Qu Bing replied “I am also in admiration of brother’s honor and confidence. But we have something pending and we need to rush to meet our family merchant caravan. We really can’t stay.”
Yi Zhi Xie sighed “Then I must hope that we are destined to meet again.” He ordered two horses brought over, and one horse even has the bow and arrow from earlier. It was his gift “Since you are in such a rush, please don’t decline this.”
These are rare horse flesh indeed, and Huo Qu Bing isn’t one to pretend to be reserved, so he laughed and accepted it “We’re not deserving, but thank you.”
We rode the horses and took off, and after riding some distance away, Huo Qu Bing turned around to look at Yi Zhi Xie “That man was some personage! Looking at his every gesture, he must have already suspected his guards when the tally was announced. But to force me to work for him, he kept silent until the very last second to reveal the truth. He is calculating and doesn’t trust anybody, vicious and cold. Yet there is honor in him. I can’t figure him out!”
I startled and said “But seeing the way you behaved back there, you seemed to compliment him and didn’t have this level of understanding. You acted like he was just any warrior…..” Before I finished, I understood what had happened. The competition between Huo Qu Bing and Yi Zhi Xie was a real life and death battle only after they finished shooting down the geese. Before they were just competing on physical skill, but afterwards they were competing on mental tactics. If Huo Qu Bing made one wrong move and Yi Zhi Xie became suspicious, then likely what Yi Zhi Xie gave us wouldn’t have been these two horses.
A lone horse suddenly rode past us, and the man on that horse gave Huo Qu Bing a glance and his entire expression changed. Huo Qu Bing immediately whipped my horse and his with a laugh “Looks like one wave is starting before the other wave has calmed down. Yu Er, we have to escape for our lives now. That man who just passed us is the former Han general Zhao Xin. He recognized me, and they won’t let me leave here alive. I just hope there isn’t a Xiong Nu army nearby. I’m not afraid of those ten or so people back there.”
I rode faster and smiled bitterly “There…..there is likely a Xiong Nu army nearby. It might not be a lot, but it will surely be the best of the best.” I turned to look back. Zhao Xin had jumped off the horse and bowed to Yi Zhi Xie, and immediately Yi Zhi Xie and everyone got right on their horses.
Huo Qu Bing laughed “Just like I suspected. That man must be a high ranking official in the Xiong Nu.” The Xiong Nu chasing us have increased greatly in numbers and the sound of horses thundering causes the entire plain to tremble. I said “His…..name is Yi Zhi Xie” and I bit my lip.