Qing Yang did not dare let their mother see Ah Heng in her injured state so he brought her to his quarters to recuperate. With his powers, aided by Shao Hao’s Jade, Ah Heng recovered quickly.
“Look at the state you are in! And you are still refusing to marry Shao Hao?”
Ah Heng pursed her lips and remained silent.
“Is he Chi You? Do you believe I will kill that boy from Jiu Li?”
Ah Heng looked at him steadily.
Qing Yang’s anger left as quickly as it came. Although his siblings are each different in terms of character, they all share the same stubborn streak, so he tried to think of another approach. Finally he asked after a long time “Who is Royal Father’s favourite woman?”
Although her voice was a little hoarse, Ah Heng did not need to think hard to answer this question “His third Concubine, Madam Tong Yu.”
“Do you think given mother’s character, will Royal Father favour our mother?”
“Of course not!” Mother was stubborn and had refused to maintain a youthful appearance. For as long as she could remember, Royal Father has never spent the night at Chao Yun Palace.
“Five hundred years ago, Madam Yu Tong has tried to move in to Chao Yun Palace”
Ah Heng finally got what he was trying to say. “You mean she wanted Royal Father to make her his Empress?”
Qing Yang nodded.
“How come I did not know about this?”
“How come I did not know about this?”
“Chang Yi did not want you to know and begged me to keep it from you. Both he and mother did not want you to be worried but you need to grow up one day, and things that will happen will not go away.”
“Ah Heng, do you really believe that the sons in our family are all filial, or that there is brotherly love among us?”
Ah Heng remained silent; she had sensed the undercurrents a long time ago.
Qing Yang continued “Do you know why Madam Yu Tong finally gave up telling Father how much she love the views of Chao Yun Palace?”
“Is it because of Big Brother?”
Qing Yang shook his head and laughed coldly. “If it is because of me, all the more she will want to move into Chao Yun Palace because that is the only way her son will become the legal son of the Empress and contend openly with me for the throne. The real reason is because of you.”
“Me?” Ah Heng found that hard to believe. She was only a child at that time, how could she have made a difference?
“Because you are betroth to Shao Hao and there is a great possibility that Shao Hao will become the next Jun Emperor. Given Gao Xing’s emphasis on lineage and that you are Royal Father’s only daughter, he will not want to take away your status as the daughter of Xuan Yuan Empress (as opposed to the daughter of a concubine).”
Ignoring her look of shock, Qing Yang continued. “Ah Heng, Mother has done her best to provide you with a carefree childhood. Do you know how precious five hundred years of freedom is to a Royal? You have seen with your own eyes how Mother lives. Have you ever thought about our sacrifices? Would you bear to see your Mother humiliated? If you do not marry Shao Hao, there is a high chance Mother will have to move out from Chao Yun Palace and Chang Yi will become the son of a concubine. Chang Yi has always protected you since young. Do you think he will be able to deal with all the traps that others will lay for him with his character, once he becomes the son of a concubine?”
It had never crossed Ah Heng’s mind that her refusal to marry Shao Hao would implicate her Mother and Third Brother.
“If you are willing to forsake Mother and Chang Yi for another man, I will not stop you. But do you really believe you will get what you want even if you refuse the marriage?”
Although Ah Heng had her hopes, she was no fool and understood what Qing Yang was trying to say. Tears flowed from her eyes but Qing Yang did not stop there. “If you disobeyed Royal Father and break the marriage alliance between Xuan Yuan and Gao Xing, do you think he will let this matter rest so easily? He may not kill you but he will definitely not hesitate to kill Chi You! And Gao Xing is an ancient tribe. Even if Shao Hao does not hold this episode against you, the Gao Xing royal family will never forgive the humiliation Chi You caused and they will also send their assassins after him. From what I know, Zhu Rong hates Chi You so do you want to hazard a guess if he will push Chi You to his doom given the opportunity? Do you really wish to see Chi You being hunted down by three powerful tribes? Even if the world is big, do you believe there is a safe place for you?”
Her face was white and she felt weak all over as if her bones had been stripped away. It was not just her dreams of romance being dashed, the beautiful world that Mother and Chang Yi had built for her was crumbling as well.
“Because Uncle Zhu has been guarding Chao Yun peak, Mother has yet to learn of your punishment. Do you wish for her to know?”
Ah Heng shook her head.
“Good. We will pretend that nothing has happened. Rest well and when you go with me to Chao Yun Palace tomorrow, please tell Mother personally that you will marry Shao Hao.”
Ah Heng closed her eyes and let her tears fall silently.
A few days back.
In the deep of the night, Chi You was preparing to leave for Jiu Li. He was looking forward to reach there early so that he could prepare a small surprise for Ah Heng.
Suddenly, a streak of red light flashed above the skies of Xiao Yue Ding. He hesitated but turned his ride towards Mount Shen Nong the next instant.
Yun Sang dashed to him the moment he landed, her face white. “Royal Father has fallen into a coma and Yu Wang is watching over him now. Until the news of his accession is announced, Xuan Yuan and Gao Xing must not know about this to prevent their armies from launching a surprise attack. I have issued orders in Father’s name for Zhu Rong, Gong Tu and Hou Tu to come to Mount Shen Nong immediately. They do not know of the situation yet and once they arrive, increase the number of guards patrolling the place and do not let them leave the mountain!”
Next, Yun Sang ordered her guards. “Activate the shield covering the twenty-eight peaks of Mount Shen Nong. From now on, only people will be allowed into the mountain but no one is allowed to leave. If anyone tried to leave by force, execute the person immediately!”
The Royal Guards were fiercely loyal to the Yan Emperor and their resounding “Yes” rang throughout the mountain. A few thousand years had passed since the shield was last activated. It was a magic crafted by a previous Yan Emperor of ancient times and was so powerful, no one could leave the protected zone if he did not have the essence blood of the Yan Emperor. A fly, much less a human or god, could hope to leave Mount Shen Nong once the shield was up.
As Chi You strode towards the hall, he glanced longingly at the direction of Jiu Li. Sadness and anxiety were both there, but he could not tell if it was for the Yan Emperor or for Ah Heng.
That night, Yu Wang, Yun Sang, Mu Jin waited at the Yan Emperor bedside. When dawn was about to break, the Yan Emperor stirred and looked around his room. Before Yun Sang could figure out what he was looking for, Yu Wang called out. “Chi You, come quick! Royal Father wanted to see you.”
Outside the room, Zhu Rong, Gong Tu and the rest stared at Chi You. When Chi You entered the room, the Yan Emperor gave a faint smile but the smile looked a little distorted with the pain wrought on by his illness.
Looking at the frail man, Chi You was reminded of a scene several hundred years ago. A skinny old man was standing knee-deep in the marsh, wearing a straw hat and carrying a basket on his back. He rubbed his stomach and had said “Aiyo, how did you get the monkeys to pick fruits for you? Can you share one with me?”
For several hundred years, the wily old man had thought him to talk, read, and write. He had very long-windedly, taught him etiquette and was forever cracking his brains for ideas to curb his wild temper. He felt a tingling sensation in his nose and knelt beside the bedside “Teacher, I will definitely honor my promise!”
The Yan Emperor breathed a faint sigh of relief and looked next at Mu Jin. Mu Jin bowed to the floor and said “Had not Royal Father taken me in, I would have died a long time ago. There is no way I could repay your kindness but I know Royal Father care most for his citizens. Although I am only a girl, I will also do my best to protect the people of Shen Nong for you.”
The Yan Emperor mouthed something and turned his eyes to his pillow side. Following his eyes, Yun Sang immediately took out a box which contained two birds carved from wood. She did not know what they are but she knew instinctively her Father wanted them and she took the carvings out from the box.
After starting at them for a while, the Yan Emperor turned to look at Yun Sang. Although his lips moved, no one could hear what he said but Yun Sang understood. She took the pot of blue flowers on the window sill and cradled it carefully in her arms as she choked out “I will… will plant them at the… grave you will be sharing with Mother. You can leave without worries!”
The Yan Emperor stared at the flowers as the light slowly faded from his eyes while his smile got deeper. Finally, his eyes turned greyish-white at the same time his smile froze on his lips.
Mu Jin clung to the bedside and started to sob uncontrollably. Yun Sang remained kneeling on the ground, neither crying nor moving, before falling backwards into a dead faint. Hearing their cries, Zhu Rong and the others dashed into the room. When they saw the dead Emperor, grief flooded them as one by one, they knelt on the ground and cried.
The two wooden birds turned alive when the Yan Emperor breathe his last breath, and flew out of the window…
The next morning.
The Jade Mother has just finished washing up and was looking at her reflection in the mirror. She looked exactly the same as she did at sixteen.
Suddenly, she thought she heard a familiar tune. The music triggered a memory of her younger self dancing in a field of flowers as the setting sun dusted the surroundings a striking orange…
It took a while for her to realize that the song was not in her head but was coming from outside her room. She dashed out of her room so quickly that she upset her wash basin, mirror and chair, but she could not care less. When she finally reached her courtyard, she saw a wooden bird perched on a tree singing a familiar song – a song of farewell and apology.
The Jade Mother seemed to have turned into a statue as tears started flowing uncontrollably from her eyes. When the music continued, she started dancing to the song. As she danced, she cried. As she cried, she smiled. Finally, after a thousand years of waiting, she heard this song again! But alas, it had never crossed her mind that the next time she heard the song, it would turn out to be a song of farewell!
When the song ended, the bird puppet turned into ash while the Jade Mother concentrated on completing her dance. Her maids were alarmed but did not know what they could do as the Jade Mother continued to hum and laugh and cry and dance. As her skirt whirled and swirled, snow started drifting down from the sky. Snow in a land of eternal spring? But the snow started falling in earnest and slowly covered the whole mountain in a white blanket, the coldness of which caused the flowers on Jade Mountain to wither and die.
As she danced, wrinkles started to appear on the Jade Mother’s face until her entire face was lined. Her maids were frightened by the sight but could do nothing except keep calling her name.
And the evergreen mountain that never ages, turned white in the name of friendship.
Mid-day was the time when the light was at its best in Chao Yun Palace and Lei Zu loved to weave her silk at this time. When she saw a red bird flying above her quarters, she paled. Putting her weaving to one side, she strode out of her room and saw a bird puppet perched on a nearby tree, singing a familiar song.
The song brought back wonderful memories of her youth and Lei Zu laughed. This was the same song they were singing that day she left the mountain a few thousand years ago. That day, the weather was comfortably warm. Shi Nian was playing a beautiful melody with his flute and Ah Mei was dancing gracefully. She was singing, but her heart was not in the song as she was thinking of the handsome young man she met at the foot of Xuan Yuan Mountain.
She decided on the spot then that she would leave to look for the young man. As a result, Shi Nian never completed his piece and Ah Mei never completed her dance.
She had not known then, that a song would need two thousand years to complete. Had she known that the beautiful sunset would never again shine so warmly on the three of them, perhaps she would not have dashed after the young man so abruptly, regardless of how long her life was and how many more sunsets she would see. Perhaps she would have treasured that moment more and waited for the song to finish even if she had to leave.
The red bird finished its song and turned into ash, telling her without words that the Yan Emperor was gone forever. Grief caused the tears to flow from her eyes. “I am sorry!” but it was too late.
Seven days later, news spread across the land that the Seventh Yan Emperor had passed away and Prince Yu Wang would ascend the throne to become the Eighth Yan Emperor. In accordance with the late king’s orders, Chi You was conferred the title of Grand General and would command all of Shen Nong’s army.
Ten days later, Gao Xing and Xuan Yuan announced the wedding date of Gao Xing Shao Hao and Xuan Yuan Ba, joining the two major god tribes in a marriage alliance. There would be a wedding ceremony so grand, that the likes of it had not been seen in the world for more than a thousand years.
Some thoughts of mine.
Although Ah Heng suffered when Chi You did not show up at Jiu Li, I have a feeling that she would not hold it against him when she learned what has happened. It is too bad she has to marry Shao Hao, but with the marriage, it will move the story to its next level and I’m more than ready to move on after this ultra-long and a tad draggy chapter.
The friendship between Shi Nian (Yan Emperor), Ah Lei (Xuan Yuan Empress) and Ah Mei (Jade Mother) was truly poignant and I wonder if everyone felt the impact of the Yan Emperor’s departure? 青山不老，却为君白头 was the description used although I could not quite translate it properly. I have to credit Decembi for sharing her take on this phrase which was "The evergreen mountain never ages, but it has turned old for you" which I then used to improve my original wording. I love, love the use of the bird puppets and did anyone link them to the wood that the Yan Emperor was whittling in Chapter 10 when Ah Heng brought Chi You to Xiao Yue Ding?
The bird puppets are able to leave Shen Nong when nothing can leave the mountain and convey his farewell to his friends without words. Jade Mother gave up her youthful looks when she heard the song because she no longer needed to look her best as the people she has been waiting for would never come. Although Lei Zu’s reaction was more restrained, I find her grief more distressing because we know she had given up her dreams long ago. And after she abandoned her friends in such an abrupt manner no less. She must have been a very spoilt lady but this also showed how focused a person she was and I guess her humiliation must have been very thorough in the past, which would make her regret even more painful today.
As we round up the chapter, I read once more the poem that was the title of this chapter (click here for translation). I was wrong - the title is not a poetic expression and it actually adds depth to the chapter, whether it is a somber promise between lovers (Ah Heng / Chi You), or friendship that can only take place in the next life (Shi Nian / Ah Lei / Ah Mei) . Hope you have enjoyed this chapter with me.
- Moonblossom -