The Yan Emperor thanked Shao Hao once more and bid Yu Wang and Chi You to send him off. The group set off with Yu Wang and Shao Hao in front, Mu Jin and Chi You behind. Mu Jin was accustomed to Chi You’s indifference which can be seen from the way she happily carried on a one-sided conversation with him at the Peach Banquet.
When they were out of the valley, they saw Ah Heng gazing into the distance with a white bird perched on her shoulder. When she turned around at their voices, her sorrow could be felt even across the distance. Chi You quickly walked to her and Lie Yang flew to perch on his shoulder. Mu Jin has never seen such a majestic white bird and tried to stroke its feathers but the bird pecked at her viciously. Although she was quick, she was not quick enough and she got stung. Angered, she tried to hit Lie Yang but Chi You warned her. “Do not provoke him.”
As Yu Wang bid farewell to Shao Hao, Ah Heng walked over and said to Shao Hao. “Her Highness has asked me to convey her thanks. Before you leave, could I have a word with Your Highness?”
Yu Wang stepped aside to give them some privacy while Chi You glared at the two. Ah Heng ignored him and handed a bamboo slip to Shao Hao to pass to General Nuo Nai. Shao Hao assured that he would do so personally and when Ah Heng curtsied her thanks, Shao Yao stared at her for a moment before shaking his head. “Strange, I keep getting this feeling that we have met before.”
Before Ah Heng could get more nervous, Shao Hao mounted his crane and sent the group a charming smile and waved, “Ladies and gentlemen, until we meet again.”
Yu Wang sighed in admiration at his departing back. “No wonder father praised him and Qing Yang! When I met Qing Yang a few hundred years ago, I had wondered if there was another god who can match him? But seeing Shao Hao today, I can see that Gao Xing and Xuan Yuan are truly fortunate to have such outstanding sons!”
Yu Wang sighed. “Chi You is not the same.”
“What is the difference? Chi You…” turning around, Mu Jin saw that Chi You was not paying any attention to them. He has conjured a fireball for Lie Yang to battle with and was talking to Ah Heng.
Stomping her feet, she cried. “Chi You! Royal Father said he has something important to tell us and wanted us to return once we have sent off Shao Hao!”
Ah Heng tried to excuse herself but Yu Wang assured her warmly. “Royal Father has asked you to come along as well. He said that you are the daughter of our aunt, so we are as good as siblings. What should I call you?”
“My name is Ah Heng.”
“Sister Heng, you can call me Yu Wang or simply Brother.”
When they returned back to the Yan Emperor, he bade them to seat opposite him and faced Yu Wang and Mu Jin. “I had wanted to let Yun Sang know as well but since she is injured, please keep this from her for the time being. What I am going to say next involves the security of Shen Nong and without my explicit permission, you must not mention this to anyone. Mu Jin, do you understand?”
Mu Jin’s eyes were solemn and carried a hint of Yun Sang’s steadfastness. “Although Hou Tu and I are childhood playmates and we are very close, Royal Father need not worry that I will let him know inadvertently. Rest assured you can trust me even if I do tend to behave rashly at times.”
The Yan Emperor nodded and looked benevolently at his children. “I am poisoned and have only another three to five years to live.”
Shocked, Yu Wang and Mu Jin knew the Yan Emperor would not joke on something as serious as this. As they digested the news, their eyes slowly reflected their fear.
After half a beat, Mu Jin tried to smile. “Royal Father, no one can match you in the art of healing. How could there be a poison that you could not cure?” She turned to look at Chi You as if hoping he could help say something.
“Master indeed does not have long to live.”
His words gave her yet another shock and tears welled up in her eyes while Yu Wang lurched at Chi You. “You are sprouting nonsense!”
“Yu Wang!” At the Yan Emperor’s rebuke, Yu Wang held on tightly to Chi You's lapels. Chi You remained impassive but he looked steadily at Yu Wang as if reminding him that this was the moment when the Yan Emperor most needed Yu Wang to be strong. Taking a deep breath, Yu Wang released Chi You and knelt in front of his father. His whole body shook as he tried to contain his grief and called out to his father. Saddened, Ah Heng bowed her head. Although Mu Jin was less successful in containing her tears, her sobs gradually grew softer and Ah Heng discreetly passed her a handkerchief.
The Yan Emperor turned to Yu Wang. “Your godly powers are weak, plus you are soft-hearted and indecisive. These attributes do not make you an ideal successor to lead the tribe, yet I can choose no other to prevent creating a bigger problem. As my son and legitimate successor, no matter how Zhu Rong and the others protest, they will not rebel which could happen if I appointed someone else to succeed me, and that will cause Shen Nong to split up and plunge it into chaos.”
Yu Wang bowed his head. “Your son understands. I am sorry my weakness has caused worry for Royal Father.”
The Yan Emperor smiled and gently patted his shoulder. “Your mother was such a kind soul, she could not even bear to hurt plants and flowers (much less people or animals). When she was pregnant with you, we would frequently discuss how we hope our son would turn out and this was what she said - ‘He need not possess great powers or be outstanding. I only wish that he can be caring, kind and lead a peaceful life’.”
Yu Wang looked unbelievingly at the Yan Emperor, “I am happy - and I am sure your mother is happy – on how our son has turned out. Our son did not disappoint us for not only is he caring and kind, he also has the most benevolent of hearts.”
Something akin to crystals shimmered in Yu Wang’s eyes and he quickly lowered his head. “I have always thought that Father must be disappointed with me.”
The Yan Emperor shook his head. “I have never been disappointed with you. In fact, it is the other way round. You were the one with no choice but to be born as the son of the Yan Emperor. Had you been born in a normal family, you would be leading a much happier life than now. Not just to you, I am deeply apologetic to your sisters and mother. Because of me, your mother had to carry a burden which she could not carry. Because of me, Yun Sang could not do what she wants and continues as the Eldest Princess of Shen Nong day after day. I may not be a bad emperor, but I am definitely not a good husband or father.
Yu Wang could not contain his emotions and the tears spilled forth from his eyes. “Royal Father, please not say any more. Mother and the rest of us have never blamed you!”
“Yet here I am again, placing the fate of Shen Nong in your hands despite knowing full well the magnitude of this responsibility.”
Yu Wang bowed from his waist. “Your son will try his best!”
The Yan Emperor put both his hands on his shoulders. In his eyes were too much worry, but he could do nothing except pressed down hard on Yu Wang as if he wanted to push him to the floor. Yu Wang straightened his back as if he would never bend, and something passed between the two as one tried to pressed the other down while the other held up. Finally, the Yan Emperor spoke. “I am thinking to promote Chi You as the Great General of Shen Nong, what do you think of this arrangement?” Yu Wang quickly replied. “As per Father’s wishes.”
The Yan Emperor pointed to Chi You. “Go bow three times to him and promise him that you will believe in him your whole life and will never doubt him, in return that he pledge to help you his whole life.”
Yu Wang knelt before Chi You and pointed a hand to the sky and another to the ground. “In front of my father above and my mother who is buried here, I, Shen Nong Yu Wang, promise that no matter what happens, I will never doubt Chi You and that I will believe in him forever. If I break my promise, may I be forsaken by both my parents and the heavens above.”
He bowed three times and Chi You said expressionlessly. “I promise you that I will try my best to help you.”
Although Chi You’s reply was so nonchalant that it did not resemble a promise at all, the Yan Emperor heaved a sigh of relief and smiled as he held on to Yu Wang and Chi You hands. “I will leave Shen Nong in your good hands then.”
Yu Wang held Chi You’s free hand and looked at him with tears in his eyes. Chi You returned his grip and shook it hard. Yu Wang sent him a blow, “And don’t make me steal wine for you if I ever beg you to do something for me in future.” With the light banter, this was the true moment the two men sealed their promise to each other. Regardless of what dangers the future may bring, the two brothers would face it together.
The Yan Emperor laughed. “There is no need for you two monkeys to steal any wine tonight. Mu Jin, go and take out all the wine in the house.” Yun Sang suddenly appeared from the shadows and said with a smile. “And bring me a wine bowl as well.”
Ah Heng knew she has overheard the Yan Emperor and quickly moved to hold her hand. Looking at her worried eyes, Yun Sang squeezed her hand to indicate that she was fine, that she could still hold on.
In the face of Chi You and Yun Sang’s calm, Yu Wang and Mu Jin kept up the pretence that everything was fine. Cup after cup, they drowned the wine and chatted with the Yan Emperor as if they have forgotten that he was very ill. After a while, the Yan Emperor asked to speak to Ah Heng alone on the pretext of walking to help sober up, and the two walked to the middle of the valley.
The Yan Emperor could tell that Chi You liked Ah Heng and had tried to create opportunities to bring the two together. Part of it was because he viewed Chi You as his son but part of it was also because he was the Yan Emperor. After spending the most of today with his children, he was feeling less like an Emperor and felt more apologetic to Ah Heng at this moment. He passed her a jade scroll and said, “Here is a present for you. Hope it will come in useful to you one day.”
Ah Heng read the words on the scroll “Book of Shen Nong Medicinal Herbs?”
“This contains my life’s work and is my greeting gift to you as your uncle.”
“Why don’t you give this to Sister Yun Sang?”
“Her talent is not in medicine. Perhaps, it is because healing and death goes hand in hand which Yun Sang deeply resisted in her heart. Besides… this is not a good thing. Many people are eyeing to possess and if it is given to Yun Sang, it may bring death to her doorstep.”
Ah Heng’s mood grew heavy. The scroll in her hand contained the essence of the Number One man in the land. It was something that could kill the strongest fighter without leaving a trace, or could bring someone back from the brink of death. She reminded him “I am the daughter of the Xuan Yuan Emperor!”
The Yan Emperor smiled “You are also the daughter of my sworn-sister Xi Ling Lei!”
After a moment’s hesitation, Ah Heng kept the jade scroll. “Thank you Uncle.”
“There is no need to thank me now as it is not clear if this book will bring you blessing or misfortune.”
Ah Heng knelt and bowed to the Yan Emperor. “Uncle, I intend to leave immediately. There are no walls in the world that could completely block out the wind. If anyone learns of my real identity, I fear it will only bring greater burden to Shen Nong. Besides, it may implicate Chi You, so be it for his sake or for yours, I think that it is best that I leave immediately.”
The Yan Emperor was silent. Ah Heng was in the heart of danger – no thanks partly to him – and yet she was still trying to think for him. He felt he could have genuinely liked the girl but as the Yan Emperor, what he could feel was only empathy.
“Does Uncle have any message to pass to my Mother?”
The Yan Emperor stared at the seemingly endless night and thought back of his younger self several thousand years ago. Despite the moment, his smile suddenly seemed much lighter. “No need. She already understood what I wanted to say.”
Ah Heng stood. “Uncle, I am leaving. Please help me say farewell to Chi You.”
Ah Heng walked to the cliff and called Lie Yang and Ah Bi to her side. Suddenly, she heard Chi You “Are you really going to leave without saying goodbye?”
Turning around, Ah Heng saw him standing silently beneath the starry sky. Despite his calm surface, she could feel the anger boiling beneath the surface. When she remained silent, Yun Sang appeared on her deer and said to Chi You “If you really care about Ah Heng, let her leave. Zhu Rong, Gong Gong, Hou Tu all holds equal power and Royal Father’s illness will not remain undetected for long. They had assumed that the fight for succession would not happen for another few thousand years but with the turn of events, they will be making their moves soon. Although they may not harm Yu Wang for the time being, they will feel no qualms about attacking you.”
When Chi You still looked disgruntled, Yun Sang continued. “Of course you are not afraid of them. But without a soldier to command, are you not the least bit worried that Ah Heng may get hurt if your planning is not thorough?”
Although Chi You remained silent, Yun Sang knew she had nailed him and started to walk away. Hearing her cough, Ah Heng called out to her retreating back “Yun Sang, you…. take care.”
Yun Sang turned and smiled. “Don’t worry. I will be fine. You… you must take care of yourself too!” Nodding, Ah Heng watched as Yun Sang disappeared into the woods.
“Mother does not allow me to return to Xuan Yuan Mountain so I will roam the world while there is still peace, just like before.
Thinking of the past, Chi You’s lips slowly curved up. “Can you promise me something?”
“What is it?”
“No matter where you go, meet me once every year.”
“How are we going to meet? With the deterioration of Yan Emperor’s health, security will be tightened in Shen Nong. When that time comes, it may not be to possible to even enter or exit Shen Nong.”
Chi You said “Every April when the peach blossoms covered the whole mountainside, the people of Jiu Li tribe will hold their flower festival. People will be singing love songs, and dancing with their beloved beneath the flowering trees. I will wait for you beneath the peach blossom tree in Jiu Li during the flower festival every April and I will not leave until I see you.”
Thinking of Jiu Li, Ah Heng’s heart was filled with warmth as she remembered a paradise that did not seem to belong to this world. It was the place Mi Duo and Jin Dan would meet under the full moon; it was the place of strong wine and fiery love songs. The words of the Yan Emperor reverberated in her mind - should she be like the swallows who flew together forever, or should she follow her mother footsteps and stare at her aging shadow day after day, year after year?
Sensing her indecision, Chi You grabbed her tightly. Although his expression was like frost, he eyes were burning like fire. “Xi Ling Heng, are you not willing?”
Although he tried to look threatening, Ah Heng could not contain her giggle and she felt her face slowly turning red. Closing her fingers lightly around his hand, she turned her face away as if in embarrassment before saying softly “If you are still wearing the robe I gave you, I will come and take a look each year.”
Reading between the lines, Chi You exclaimed “Meaning if I wear the robe my whole life, you will meet me every year for this lifetime?”
Ah Heng face was so red, it was as if it blood could drip from it anytime. Her voice became even softer. “If you wear it, I will come.”
Chi You broke into laughter and hugged her tightly to him. Embarrassed, Ah Heng lowered her head and could only hear the ‘thump, thump’ of her heart. Confusion, sweetness – not sure if it was hers or his – overwhelmed her. After a heartbeat, Ah Heng said “The Yan Emperor and Yu Wang are waiting for you. I will leave now.”
Chi You called to Lie Yang who was circling in the sky “I will entrust Ah Heng and Ah Bi to you!”. This was the first time Lie Yang was given such an important mission and he flew to Ah Heng’s shoulder while he thumped his breast with one wing as if to say “With me around, no problem!”. When Ah Heng and Ah Bi laughed at his antics, Lie Yang took offence and started pecking fiercely at Ah Bi.
Ah Bi barked at a nearby deer, spread his wings and started to rise above the ground, causing Chi You to slowly loosen his grip on Ah Heng. Just when their hands were going to part, Ah Heng grabbed him. “Remember. I am your debtor and only I have the power to take your life. You are not to let Zhu Rong and the others harm you!”
Chi You’s smile deepened and squeezed her hand before letting go. “I promise you - other than you, no one will ever hurt me!” Looking at their retreating backs, the deer looked towards the sky and let out a sad sound. Chi You squatted down and tweaked its ears. “Don’t be sad. I will definitely bring them back one day!”
Some thoughts of mine:
Wow. And Wow. I was moved by the exchange between the Yan Emperor and Yu Wang. Much like Liu Xun who knew exactly what kind of life he was bringing to Xu Ping Jun when he made her his Empress in Yun Zhong Ge, the Yan Emperor probably knew what was in store for Yu Wang at this moment. Yet unlike that louse Liu Xun, I can feel the Yan Emperor's remorse and reluctance as he handed Yu Wang his fate. Although he made sure he tied Chi You to Shen Nong and Yu Wang, I could not find it in me to fault him for using a talent like Chi You for his country and son. I am touched that the Yan Emperor told Yu Wang that he was every bit the son both he and his wife had hoped for, so that no matter what happens in future, Yu Wang could march on with his head held high.
As for the “Book of Shen Nong Medicinal Herbs”, I thought it was something really selfish and generous of him at the same time. So he was worried it will bring harm to Yun Sang and yet he is giving it to another girl? Still, the book is a real book in Chinese literature and was one of the cornerstone of Chinese medicine history so it is really exciting to hear a tale of the people who first possessed the book - Shen Nong Yan Di, then Ah Heng, then Xiao Yao and so on and so forth.
As for The Promise, it seems like an inconsequential promise between two lowers after all the major happenings that happened this chapter like royal succession, national security, etc. But if Tong Hua believes in it enough to form the title of this book, I will wait and see just what the promise will bring about – especially in face of the other promise made by Chi You to Yu Wang on the same night.