Why stick with a lackluster drama when there is an amazing book to be read. When a good novel comes along it’s hard to put down, when a great novel comes it’s impossible to not want to share. Last year right around this time I read C-novelist Tong Hua‘s Da Mo Yao (Ballad of the Desert) and fell promptly in love. I had finished her Bu Bu Jing Xin (Startling with Each Step) and wanted to keep on going with her lyrical prose and DMY was just the right type of soaring fun romance novel with a dash of historical flavor. After translating DMY I dived into its sequel Yun Zhong Ge (Song of the Clouds) and found it a much harder read but ended up appreciating it so much more when I decided to translate it as well. After tackling the early Han dynasty and romanticizing certain well-known historical figures during that era, Tong Hua’s next ambitious novel endeavor takes her back to pre-history in Chinese lore. While Greek mythology of the Olympian gods and goddesses are well known in Western literature, Chinese literature also has one of its earliest written texts the Classics of the Mountains and the Seas (山海經 Shan Hai Jing) detailing Chinese mythology of gods, goddesses, demons, and mythical creatures. Tong Hua takes on the events and famous mythological figures in this text as the backdrop for her two novels Once Promised (曾許諾 Cen Shu Nuo) and its sequel Lost You Forever (長相思 Chang Xiang Si).
While Once Promised is soaring and fiery, action-packed and intense, it’s the sequel Lost You Forever that really shines as a masterful work of romance in an epic world building setting. The leads of these two novels are all mythological beings, the gods and goddesses and demons that rule over a world that is filled with magic and sorcery and power. These beings live for hundreds and thousands of years, and so their loves and pain and lost also feels more immense than anything Tong Hua has written before. Once Promised kept me at the edge of my toes when I read it, but it’s body count is so high that pretty much every major character dies at the end, making Yun Zhong Ge seems like a trip to Disneyland in comparison. Translating that would be leading readers into a morass of tears and it’s not going to be pretty. I hesitated to read the sequel Lost You Forever and waited until all three volumes were released before tackling it in case it was also a rocks fall down ending. It turned out to be simultaneously a happy ending and the most tears I’ve cried in a long time by the time I stumbled my way through the epilogue. How can a story be this good, be a happy ending, and still so painfully memorable? That is the magic of Tong Hua’s writing, and once she finished Lost You Forever she’s revealed that this is her personal favorite book and what she considers her best writing to date. Tong Hua publicly says Lost You Forever is her best book? How can I not want to translate it. Care to dive into the magic with me again?
I will try to add details from Once Promised (including characters and events) as I’m translating Lost You Forever when a knowledge of the first novel is helpful to better understand what is happening. The setting of this novel is a world where powerful beings such as gods, goddesses, demons, monsters, fantastical creatures, etc. live alongside humans. The mythical beings live for hundreds and thousands of years and can possess various powers and magic. There are three mythical kingdoms – Sheng Nong, Xuan Yuan, and Gao Xing – that each govern a region of the world. In Once Promised, the Yellow Emperor of Xuan Yuan kingdom plots and successfully destroys the Shen Nong kingdom in an epic war, thereby tipping the balance of power. By the time Lost You Forever rolls around, the Xuan Yuan kingdom now rules its own territory and the territory formerly governed by the now destroyed Sheng Nong kingdom (all its royal family have been killed), and the Gao Xing kingdom has tried to remain neutral though aware that eventually Xuan Yuan will try to destroy it as well and rule the entire world alone. The female lead of Lost You Forever is probably one of my favorite heroines ever and totally different than anything Tong Hua has written before. She spends the majority of the first volume as a man (really, a man, since she can shape shift).
In fact, many of the characters in this novel will have multiple identities and it’ll become clear why as the novel progresses. It’s really amazing so be patient. I will also refrain from showing hand this early – there are three male leads in this novel but I won’t reveal which one had my heart (and yes, he totally has my heart forever and ever with how amazing he is) so as to not influence shipping. I can reveal that the shipping war in the Chinese novel forums are CRAZY intense. Way way way more heated than any shipping wars in BBJX, DMY, and YZG. For those of you who may have read this novel, please don’t reveal the ending in the comments section please. This is a journey, a love story, a story about dreams and hopes and reality. Knowing how it ends doesn’t mean anything unless you take the journey with the characters. The three male leads will be introduced with one in each of the first three chapters so get ready to start feeling around for what captures your fancy. Tong Hua’s writing style has changed significantly from when she did her earlier novels so be prepared to be surprised in a good way. This novel starts off oddly with a very low key rescue in a very nondescript medical clinic in a hardscrabble town.
Chapter 1 – Life is Short Like a Temporary Stay:
That day, was the same as the last thousand days before it.
A few rooster crows and there gradually was the sound of human life in Qing Shui Town. Lao Mu (Old Mu) from the Hui Chun Clinic hurried to pick up fresh lamb from Butcher Gao. Two helpers were busying for the start of the day’s business.
The town doctor Wen Xiao Liu (Xiao Liu means Little Six) had a bowl of lamb stew in one hand and a biscuit in the other and was squatting on the backyard stoop noisily eating. Past the steps were two pastures planted with medicinal herbs, and in between was a little pathway that led to a small river. The sun was just rising and casting a golden glow on the river surface. The flowers were blooming on either side of the river banks and the birds were flying and landing, lending it a very poetic view. Xiao Liu admired the view while thinking the swans must be very plump and would be tasty to catch a few and roast them.
After the stew was in his stomach, he put the dirty bowl in a pail next to the door where other dirty bowls already resided. He picked up the pail to take down to the river to wash. There was a black shadow next to some water logs by the edge of the river and it wasn’t clear what kind of bird it was. Wen Xiao Liu put down the pail and picked up a rock to toss at it. The rock hit the black shadow but it didn’t move.
Wen Xiao Liu was stunned, when did he ever get so accurate? He walked over and saw that it wasn’t a bird but was a person. Wen Xiao Liu immediately turned around and walked to the edge of the river to wash his dishes, as if he didn’t just saw something that resembled a human corpse.
Wen Xiao Liu complained as he washed the dishes “This dish will get dirty at the next meal despite getting cleaned now. Why wash after every meal? If one eats out of one’s own bowl, it’s not dirty, so one can wash every few days.”
Wen Xiao Liu never made his bed in the morning. If he folded his blankets he would just have to mess it up that night so why would he make more work for himself. Who’s that stupid? He could get away with never making his bed, but he had to wash the dirty dishes otherwise Lao Mu would have smacked him already.
Xiao Liu complained under his breath and rinsed all the bowls one time before picking the pail up and heading back, his eyes never once glancing towards the logs.
The people of Qing Shui Town saw more dead people than people outside the town had eaten meals, even the kids were desensitized to it.
Hui Chun Clinic may not be a large clinic but Wen Xiao Liu was especially skilled at treating infertility, with ten ladies coming to seek help and he could cure perhaps six or seven of them so the business of the clinic was pretty decent. After being busy for half a day, it was noon when Wen Xiao Liu wandered into the backyard moving his body after sitting still for so long.
Ma Zi (his name is a derogatory term for someone marked with leprosy) was sorting the herbs in the backyard and pointed to the door “A beggar came by and I tossed him half a biscuit.”
Xiao Liu nodded and said nothing. The kitchen only stoked the fires twice a day morning and evening so Xiao Liu took a biscuit and a scoop of water from the water pail before squatting by the door and looking outside as he ate.
Outside the door was a man sprawled on the ground. His clothes were tattered, his hair was matted, his skin was scratched and shredded, and he was covered in dirt. Other than his shape resembling a human being, nothing else looked like a one.
Xiao Liu squinted and could see a dirt trail that had already been dried by the sun. It ended by the beggar and extended all the way to the river banks by the water logs. Xiao Liu raised an eyebrow and then took a drink of the water to help swallow the hard biscuit.
He glimpsed from the corner of his eyes the black shape moving ever so slightly. Xiao Liu turned towards the beggar and saw that Ma Zi’s aim was pretty good. The biscuit landed by his body but he appeared to have no strength to even reach for it so it just laid there. Xiao Liu munched on his biscuit and looked at him. After a few minutes, he finished the biscuit and wiped the crumbs with his sleeve, clapping his hands and tossing the water ladle back into the pail. He hummed a tune and went back to the clinic. It was evening by the time Xiao Liu came back and everyone noisily started dinner.
Xiao Liu finished dinner and used the back of his hand to wipe his mouth before wiping the hand on his shirt. He intended to head back to his room but his legs had other thoughts and took him out of the back door. Ma Zi asked “Brother Liu, where are you going?”
“Talking a walk after dinner for digestion.”
Xiao Liu took a stroll around the river and hummed his tune. As he walked back along the little path, he stopped next to the beggar and stepped on that biscuit beside him. Xiao Liu knelt down “I stepped on your biscuit, what can I do to make it up to you?”
The beggar did not respond and Xiao Liu looked up at the sky, the crescent moon hung cold and low by the edge of the horizon as if the Heavens were smiling with a mocking grin at the mortals below.
After a few moments, Xiao Liu reached out and picked up the beggar. He was a man, his frame wasn’t small but he was as thin as a stick and light as a feather. Xiao Liu carried him and kicked open the door, stepping into the backyard. “Lao Mu, Ma Zi, Chuan Zi, come help me.” [Chuan Zi means a derogatory term for a hooligan.]
The three sitting in the backyard chatting didn’t appear to find this strange and immediately all went to help.
Xiao Liu put the beggar on the bed pallet and Ma Zi brought in a basin of warm water and lit the flame in the room. Xiao Liu ordered “Wash his body, feed some warm soup. If there are any injuries, you guys take care of it.”
Just as he stepped out of the room, he heard Ma Zi scream in horror and Xiao Liu immediately turned around. He saw Ma Zi with an ashen face like he had just seen a ghost, and even his voice was shaking “Brother Liu, you….you need to see this. This person can’t possibly survive.”
Xiao Liu walked over and took a good look. The man’s entire face was battered and bruised so badly it was swollen like a pig’s head. His features were completely indistinguishable. On a reed thin body, paired with a giant head, it was freakishly scary.
Xiao Liu pushed aside his clothes, or more like scraps of cloth, and the man’s entire body was criss-crossed with scars and wounds of all types – whips, knives, burns, and there was a completely charred path right on his chest that came from a brand. Because he didn’t have any excess muscle, his bones protruded clearly and the burned skin hung on his rib cage.
Xiao Liu picked up his hand and all his fingernails had been plucked off and the hand had swollen after being in the water. Xiao Liu gingerly put his hand down and inspected his legs. His right leg femur was snapped in half and all ten of his toenails were also plucked out. There were some bloody holes on the soles of his feet, clearly having nails drilled there. Ma Zi and Chuan Zi were accustomed to seeing patients but this frightened even them. Each took a few steps back and averted their eyes, unable to look anymore. Wen Xiao Liu remained dispassionate and calm, ordering “Bring some medicine.”
Ma Zi snapped out of it and ran to grab the cleaning herbs and wanted to offer to clean the injuries but couldn’t bring himself to say it. Xiao Liu knew he couldn’t count on any of them and silently started cleaning the man himself. He used a clean cloth soaked in medicinal herb wabter and carefully cleaned the man’s body. Clearly the wounds were hurting because the man woke up. Because he had an injury on his eyelids he couldn’t open his eyes so he just tensely pursed his lips.
Xiao Liu gently said “I am Wen Xiao Liu, you can call me Xiao Liu. I’m a small town doctor and I am cleaning your wounds. If it hurts, you need to cry out.”
But Xiao Liu cleaned his entire body and he never made any sound but his forehead was beaded in sweat. Perhaps his fortitude and endurance led Xiao Liu to develop some respect for him and his heart finally softened. He used a towel to wipe the sweat from his forehead and then Xiao Liu started to take his pants off. The man’s body shook lightly, conveying a bone deep hatred that he kept under control.
Xiao Liu wanted him to relax and joked “You are a man, how can you be afraid of a guy taking your pants off?” After the pants came off, Xiao Liu fell silent.
From his knees until the top of his thighs, some one the wounds were fresher than others so the injuries ranged from dark to light. It resembled a tattered rag that has been mended too many times. The person who performed the torture was clearly well aware of a person’s endurance levels and also knew what areas in the inner though was the most sensitive. Every time he stabbed an area there, a man would have prayed for death but he wouldn’t die. Xiao Liu ordered “Alcohol, candle wax, scissors, bone cutting knife, boards, gauze, ointment………”
Chuan Zi ran to get the items while Ma Zi stayed to help, but his eyes always averted away from the man’s body.
Xiao Liu saw Chaun Zi come back with ointment and furrowed his brow “Go to my room and take a jar hidden on the bottom of my dresser.”
Chuan Zi couldn’t avert his eyes fast enough and paused for a moment before running off to get it.
Xiao Liu was gentle as can be and fully concentrated on tending the wounds. But no matter the care taken, there were a multitude of wounds, some with rotted flesh that needed to be cut away, others with dead skin that needed to be snipped, and his broken leg needed to be set.
Because of the pain, Xiao Liu could feel the man shaking but his eyes remained closed and he tightly bit his lips quietly enduring. He battered body was naked and everywhere was the signs of torture meant to degrade and shame him. Yet his behavior remained lofty and composed.
Xiao Liu realized he probably reacted this way to the torture as well, the person being shamed having more dignity than the person shaming. The person torturing him would have been filled with even more rage and therefore increased the torture. After three hours, Xiao Liu finally finished cleaning all the wounds and he was also covered in sweat. He wearily said “External ointment.”
Ma Zi opened a jar and a light delicate scent wafted out. Xiao Liu reached in and scooped out a golden ointment with his hands and started applying it on the man, starting with his face.
The cold ointment alleviated some of the pain and the man’s pursed lips softened slightly. Xiao Liu saw the blood staining his lips and applied some ointment there as well. The man quickly tried to shut his mouth and took Xiao Liu’s finger into his lips. It was the only time tonight Xiao Liu felt anything soft from his body.
Xiao Liu was momentarily stunned but the man already opened his lips and Xiao Liu pulled back his finger. He gently lifted his arm and started applying medicine.
After another half hour, the man’s entire body was covered in ointment and wrapped in gauze.
Wen Xiao Liu covered him with a clean blanket and softly said “I will need to check on your wounds often these next few days so I won’t give you any clothes. Don’t worry, we don’t have any females in this household. Even if you flash someone, no one will make you marry her.”
Ma Zi and Chuan Zi both laughed. Wen Xiao Liu started to recite the list of ingredients for the herbal medicine and Ma Zi memorized it and went to grab the herbs.
Xiao Liu looked outside and figured he could still sleep for another hour. But then he saw the man’s matted hair and he furrowed his brow before calling for Chuan Zi “Cloth, hot water, basin, pail.” Xiao Liu sat down on the edge of the pallet, put his legs inside a pail, lifted up the man’s dirty head and placed it on his knees to wash his hair.
Chuan Zi sheepishly offered “Brother Liu, tomorrow you have to see patients, go get some sleep and I can do this.”
Xiao Liu scoffed “With your clumsy hands, I’m afraid you’ll undo my hours of hard work tending his wounds. You can just change the water.” Xiao Liu’s hand movements were gentle even more than usual, getting some suds from the soap and little by little washing the man’s hair. After thoroughly shampooing it, he ladled warm water over the hair to rinse away the blood and dirt. He used a scissors to snip away the ruined patches.
After washing his hair, Xiao Liu’s hands moved across his scalp and he lowered his hair to check. He could feel the man tense up and Xiao Liu explained “I want to check if you have any head injuries.”
The irony was that the torturers wanted him lucid to feel every bit of the pain so they didn’t harm his head.
Xiao Liu didn’t want to use any pressure so he used up many cloths gently drying his hair. He worried the hair brush would hurt him so he used his fingers like a thick soft hair brush to detangle the strands. After arranging his hair, he had Chuan Zi get a clean pillow before laying his head on the pillow.
The sun was already rising when Xiao Liu stepped outside that room. He washed his face with cold water and ate his breakfast while ordering Ma Zi “Don’t worry about the clinic for the next few days just take care of him. Don’t give him biscuits, just boil meat and vegetables mashed up to feed him. Make sure to cool it down first.” Xiao Liu finished his good and picked up his basket of medical supplies and went to the clinic.
Ma Zi spoke to the person laying on the pallet through the window “Beggar, Brother Liu spent an entire night saving you and used up all the medicine he was saving for himself. You have to survive.” When Xiao Liu came back in the afternoon, he was so tired and sleepy his eyelids were battling each other.
He tossed a wild duck on the ground and went to the kitchen to get a bowl of hot soup, crumbling some biscuits to toss inside. He sat behind the stove and noisily slurped his meal. Lao Mu was rolling dough and said “I heard about that man’s injuries from Ma Zi.”
Xiao Liu drank his soup “Uhm hmmm.”
“Ma Zi, Chuan Zi – neither can see it, but you must be able to tell. He is from one of the God tribes , and he is definitely not one of the lowlier types of Gods like us.
Xiao Liu drank his soup and didn’t respond.
“Killing someone is just cutting off a head. These kind of injuries has a big reason behind it. Saving someone who shouldn’t be saved is like bringing death to the door.”
Xiao Liu chewed and said “Clean up that duck and put a bit of salt on it and nothing else, then roast it over a small fire.”
Lao Mu glanced over and saw that Xiao Liu didn’t care so he sighed and said “Understood.”
Xiao Liu finished eating and went to ask Ma Zi “Did he eat today?”
Ma Zi said softly “Likely his throat also has an injury so he can’t swallow. He couldn’t eat the mashed soup.”
Xiao Liu walked into the room and saw a cold bowl of medicine on the table. He helped the beggar up “I’m back. Do you recognize my voice? I’m Xiao Liu, let’s take some medicine.” The man opened his eyes to look at him and he was a bit stronger than yesterday because he cracked open his eye a little bit.
Xiao Liu fed his medicine and he tried hard to swallow but it was like feeding a child and it all dribbled out. The man tightly shut his eyes. Xiao Liu softly asked “Did they torture your throat area, too?” The man imperceptibly nodded.
Xiao Liu said “Tell you a secret, I drool when I sleep. One time I dreamt I was eating a roast chicken and woke up with my pillow half soaked. I can’t cure my problem but yours is just temporary. Under the care of a legendary healer like myself, I guarantee you’ll be healed in a few days.”
Xiao Liu crawled into the bed and cradled the man in his arms and took a small spoonful of medicine and dribbled it into his mouth a drop at a time. The man tried to cooperate and valiantly swallowed. In the end he drank every drop of the remaining medicine after a good half an hour later.
The man was covered with sweat like he just ran many laps and was exhausted. Xiao Liu wiped his forehead with a cloth “You rest first and after the duck soup is done let’s have some duck soup.”
Xiao Liu walked out with the empty bowl to find Ma Zi, Chuan Zi, and Lao Mu staring at him as if seeing a ghost. Xiao Liu glared “What are you looking at?” Chuan Zi spoke “You’re even more careful than even taking care of a newborn. If someone didn’t know anything they would think you were his mother.”
“Screw you! You’re his mother!” Xiao Liu raised a leg and kicked Chuan Zi in the butt.
Chuan Zi grabbed his hurting butt and ran off. Ma Zi and Lao Mu regained their senses and Lao Mu said “Yup, this is definitely Xiao Liu, not an imposter.” Ma Zi patted his chest, comforted by the confirmation.
Xiao Liu yawned and said to Ma Zi “Close the clinic for the day, no more patients. I’m going to take a nap and wake me up when the duck soup is ready.”
Ma Zi wanted to say he could do it, but then he thought about the medicine feeding scene and realized it was as delicate as embroidering and he definitely couldn’t do it.
When the duck soup was ready, Ma Zi knocked on Xiao Liu’s door and he walked out and entered the man’s room. Just like how he fed the medicine earlier, he fed the man the bowl of soup after a good half hour.
After letting the man rest for a bit, Xiao Liu rubbed ointment on his hands and prepared to help apply accupressure on the man’s acupuncture points.
“You…..after being……even though its been some time and some of the muscle has atrophied and is very painful, if stimulated this way it can help some recovery.” The man’s eyes were closed and he nodded.
Xiao Liu smiled, after enduring that much torture and pain this would be nothing in comparison, but as he was massaging he kept talking to distract him “As I was walking to the clinic I passed a house with vines and purple flowers growing all over the wall, and when the wind blew all the flowers came falling down like rain. I was so distracted because I couldn’t believe this family would waste such delicious flowers which can be made into yummy biscuits…..”
From outside the room, Ma Zi said to Chaun Zi “I don’t think Brother Liu will ask me to take care of the beggar anymore.” The beggar’s body was broken and frail and his ugliness was frightening to behold. Even Ma Zi didn’t really want to keep seeing it.
True to Ma Zi’s words, Xiao Liu never asked him to take care of the beggar anymore. From feeding him medicine to wiping his body to applying ointment, Xiao Liu did it all himself.
After a month, the beggar’s throat injury was mostly healed and he could swallow but the habit was already formed. Every day Ma Zi would stand outside the room with a bowl of medicine and holler towards the clinic “Brother Liu ———-” And Xiao Liu would quickly finish with the patient and rush into the backyard room.
After half a year, the man’s injuries on his body was gradually healing. The nails on his fingers and toes were not completely grown back yet but he could touch water now. So Xiao Liu stopped washing his body and instead prepared a tub so he could take proper baths.
After being taking care of by Xiao Liu for six months, the man was no longer stick and bones thin but he was still very light. When Xiao Liu picked him up, he nagged “Eat more!”
The man closed his eyes and said nothing. During this entire time he was like that. Every time Xiao Liu touched his body, he shut his eyes and pursed his lips. Xiao Liu understood. After enduring so much torture, his body despised any type of touch and each time he had to endure it.
Xiao Liu put the cloth next to him and said “You wash yourself. Your hair isn’t fully grown back yet so don’t scrub so hard.”
Xiao Liu sat to the side and munched on a snack and kept him company.
Perhaps because each scar on his body was a type of shame, the man always kept his head raised and eyes closed as to not look at his own body. He took the cloth and started washing himself. From the neck down to the chest down to the stomach and finally lower towards his legs.
Xiao Liu’s eyes followed his hand when suddenly he turned to the side and munched loudly on the duck neck, making crunch crunch sounds.
The man’s eyes opened and he looked towards Xiao Liu. The sunlight shone through the window and bathed Xiao Liu in light. His cheeks were red and it was illuminated by the sunlight like a piece of beautiful jade with red spots on it.
Xiao Liu waited until the man was done bathing and carried him out of the tub. Because his leg wasn’t fully healed, usually Xiao Liu helped dress him but today he just put him on the pallet and let go.
The man kept his eyes lowered, one hand on the pallet supporting his body and the other clasping his robe shut. His hands were thin but very long, the newly grown nails white and healthy.
Xiao Liu kept his head lowered and put the robe next to him “You….you try dressing yourself. If you can’t do it then call me.”
Xiao Liu hurried out of the room but stood by the door listening to the sounds, and when it all sounded normal that’s when he left.
Chuan Zi was sorting the herbs and saw Xiao Liu and asked “Haven’t heard him speak in half a year. What if he’s stupid?”
Ma Zi smacked Chuan Zi “Shut your brainless trap! After enduring unspeakable torture, even surviving is a source of admiration. The willpower, he can’t be a stupid person.”
Ma Zi asked “Is his vocal chords damaged and now he can’t speak?”
Xiao Liu said “I checked his throat and while there is an injury and his voice will sound different than before but he should be able to talk.”
Ma Zi was happy “That’s good to know.”
Xiao Liu said “With respect to his injuries, regardless of whether you’ve seen it, from now on it’s never to be brought up again.”
Chuan Zi raised a hand “I never had the guts to look in the first place so I saw nothing.”
Ma Zi added “Don’t worry, Lao Mu already reminded us. I have a bad memory, forgot other people’s business, I forget my own stuff all the time.”
The door opened and the man supported himself on the wall and wobbled outside.
In the past it was usually dusk when Xiao Liu carried him outside to get some sun and fresh air. Today was the first time he came out during the day into the yard. He leaned against the wall and raised his head to silently look at the blue sky and white clouds.
Ma Zi and Chuan Zi gaped at the man. Because his injuries left them such an unpleasant memory, they always avoided looking at him. Chuan Zi even refused to enter his room.
This was the first time either of them clearly look at him. He had long black eyebrows, sparkling eyes, a high straight nose, his simple cheap wool clothes was worn with elegance and sophistication. In a second both Ma Zi and Chuan Zi felt so unworthy and also in awe. Xiao Liu rubbed some dry grass and said “If your legs don’t hurt too much, try moving around more. You should be able to leave in 3 to 4 months.”
The man lowered his head and looked directly at Xiao Liu “I. Have. No. Place. To. Go.” He likely hadn’t spoken a word in a few years and his voice was scratchy but his enunciation was clear. Xiao Liu leaned back and propped his feet up while chewing the dry grass “No place to go? Is that true?”
The man nodded.
Xiao Liu asked “What’s your name?”
The man shook his head.
“You don’t know? Don’t remember? Don’t want to tell me?”
“You. Saved me. I. Am. Your servant. Give name.”
Xiao Liu spit out the dry grass wad “You don’t seem like someone who serves and would listen to orders. I don’t want you.”
The man kept his eyes lowered “I. Listen. To you.”
Xiao Liu chewed more dry grass “In the future if you see people who know you, you will still listen to me?”
The man pursed his lips and his hand lightly gripped the bannister, his face pale and he remained silent.
Xiao Liu was about to scoff when he raised his eyes and looked directly at him “I listen!” In his clear eyes there appeared to be flashing embers as if branding the word “listen” in his heart. Xiao Liu hesitated for a moment and then said “Then you can stay.”
The man’s lips moved as if he wanted to smile but he didn’t. Xiao Liu tossed him some dry grass “Go sit somewhere and chew this.”
The man obediently sat down on the stone steps to the side and slowly tore off some dry grass and put it in his mouth.
Despite eating the same dry grass, his movements were refined and gave off the impression that he wasn’t eating dry grass but the fruit of the Gods from the mountains.
“Ya, that beggar, this dry grass is good for your throat”
Ma Zi scratched his head and said to Xiao Liu “Brother Liu, give him a name, we can’t keep calling him beggar.” Xiao Liu said “Then call him Gan Cao (dry grass) then.”
“NO!!!!” Both Ma Zi and Chuan Zi objected “Give him a better name, not like our names.”
Xiao Liu smacked them both “What’s wrong with our names?”
“Our names suit us, but it doesn’t suit him.” Chuan Zi said very sincerely and Ma Zi nodded his agreement.
Xiao Liu stared at the beggar guy sitting on the stone steps and then stuck his head close to Ma Zi and Chuan Zi and pointed to himself asking incredulously “I’m not as good as him?”
Chuan Zi carefully asked “Does Brother Liu want to hear the truth or not the truth?”
Ma Zi consoled him “Brother Liu, some people were born on top of the clouds, others are no better than dirt. There is nothing to compare. Let’s be accepting and live our dirt life as best as can be.”
Xiao Liu raged “I want to call him Dirt then!”
Ma Zi and Chuan Zi both yelled “Nooooooo!”
Ma Zi wanted the beggar not to be angry at him in the future over a terrible name so begged “Brother Liu, think of another name please.”
Chuan Zi also said “Yes, yes, think of another name, another name as good as Brother Liu’s name.”
Xiao Liu got all excited and reached for a medicinal herb from the basket and tossed it to Ma Zi. “Count the leaves and that will be his name.”
“…………..1, 2……….17 leaves.”
Xiao Liu turned around and yelled “Beggar, from now on your name is Ye Shi Qi” (Ye means leaves and Shi Qi means 17 so his name means 17 leaves).
Ye Shi Qi nodded and Ma Zi and Chuan Zi thought about it and decided it wasn’t bad. They both laughed and went to say hi to Shi Qi.
Lao Mu called from the front “Xiao Liu, a patient is here.”
Xiao Liu kicked both Ma Zi and Chuan Zi in the butt and hummed a ditty as he went out to see a patient.
Time flew by and another half a year passed. Shi Qi’s injuries that could heal were all healed and the ones that couldn’t heal that was it. The bone break in his femur was reattached but too much time had passed so when he walked he limped. How the wounds in areas that couldn’t be seen were healing, Xiao Liu didn’t know since Shi Qi never allowed him to help apply the medicine after he could do it himself.
Ma Zi secretly gave Shi Qi some of his secreted away savings “Our little Hui Chun Clinic…..heh heh…..you can tell Brother Liu’s medical skills isn’t all that…..heh heh…….have you heard of the Flame Emperor’s Sheng Nong Clan? If you go to the other end of town, there is the Bao Cao clinic run by a doctor who is a many generation descendant of the Sheng Nong clan. His skills are very impressive and perhaps can heal your leg.” Shi Qi silently handed the money back to Ma Zi.
Ma Zi got impatient “Don’t! You can repay me slowly but your leg is a big deal. You can pay me interest if you want then.”
Shi Qi kept his head lowered and said “This. Is good.”
“What’s good about it? Do you want to be a cripple for the rest of your life?”
“He. Doesn’t care.”
“What? Who doesn’t care?” Ma Zi scratched his head “Oh! You say that as long as Brother Liu doesn’t care about it? How does that help you if he doesn’t care? Look at how lazy he is, he can eat a meal with a bowl and use the same dirty bowl for another meal. His clothes are used like dirty rags…….”
Shi Qi glanced behind Ma Zi who wanted to keep talking sense into Shi Qi when suddenly he was smacked upside the back of his head so he immediately shut up.
Xiao Liu’s head popped into view and he took the money from Ma Zi’s “Oh, quite a lot of money! Tonight we can have a big feast!”
Xiao Liu’s eyes pop around money and he didn’t even care what Ma Zi was doing sneaking around with the money. He grabbed the money and rushed outside, with Ma Zi crying and chasing behind him “Noooooo, Brother Liu, that money is my savings so I can take a wife……I need it to do proper stuff………”
That night everyone feasted on meat and fish, with Xiao Liu and Chuan Zi happily stuffing their faces, and Ma Zi eating as much as he could otherwise it would all be for naught though it pained him to the core, while Lao Mu sipped his wine and stared at Shi Qi.
After eating, Xiao Liu, Ma Zi, and Chuan Zi were all passed out drink asleep. Today was supposed to be Xiao Liu’s chore to do the dishes, but no one remembered when their chore list changed at Hui Chun Clinic that Shi Qi did his own assigned chores but also did all of Xiao Liu’s assigned chores. Shi Qi collected all the dishes and grabbed a pail of water and sat down in the yard to wash the dishes.
Lao Mu stood behind him and asked “Who are you?”
In the sound of the evening breeze, a scratchy voice replied “I am. Ye Shi Qi.”
In case it’s not clear, Xiao Liu is our female lead. Or he will become a “she” once he reverts back to his true self – her real identity is the Crown Princess of the Gao Xing Kingdom and her real name is Jiu Yao. Her father is Shao Hao the Emperor of Gao Xing and her mother is Ah Heng the Crown Princess of the Xuan Yuan kingdom. For those who have read Once Promised, the truth is her real birth father was Qi Yo, the greatest general of the Sheng Nong Kingdom. The reason she is posing as a he and living not as royalty in her kingdom but hiding in some dinky town will become clear as the story progresses. Of course it’s clear just from this first chapter that the poor tortured Shi Qi is definitely more than meets the eye. He is one of our male leads but leave some room for the other two. All three are pretty amazing in their own way. Once the leads are all out I’ll do a legend to keep track of names since everyone has at least two names/identities here. This chapter feels ordinary and slow but it’s because the world all these people live in is so very extraordinary. So the simple stuff you’ll all later come to remember fondly.