Hello! I was actually really in the groove when I finished chapter 5 yesterday, so I wrote as much as I could - and think I should have enough till Chapter 8. Just need to clean up the text before posting. Hopefully, I can finish the first arc by this week (I am so ambitious) - the first arc will be completed around Chapter 9. Due to the break I took from writing this, the narrative of this story may be less clear - especially since it takes less of a typical romantic novel structure. The general narrative of the story should become clearer once the first arc finishes and most of the background is established.
I'm actually very excited to finish the first arc because I've been dying to write about the second arc since I started! Oh my goodness, have to stop myself from spoiling - I can only wait till Chapter 9 to squeal.
For those anxious Heavy Sweetness fans, do not worry because I've also largely finished translating the last two chapters and will have it published by thursday. If you like Heavy Sweetness, do check out my other works!
much love, decembi
Chapter 6: A Riddle
Yu An immediately sensed that this man before her must be Uncle Qing and she respectfully knelt down before him. She answered his questioning eyes in a half nervous tone, "Uncle Qing, I am your brother's daughter, Yu An."
Yu An saw a light wave ripple through Uncle Qing's gaze and she gently took out the painting in her bag that her father had entrusted her before she left and passed it to Uncle Qing.
"Father wanted me to tell you that the Yan Grand Emperor had passed away and he is requesting for you to return to pay your last respects to him," Yu An said in a soft tone, as if she was afraid that to speak any louder would offend this calm yet almost too withdrawn man before her.
Uncle Qing did not seem affected by the news of the death. She could not guess if it was perhaps he had forgotten this father of his, or he had already heard of the death. She guessed the latter was more likely.
After a long quiet moment, Uncle Qing untied the ribbon entwining the painting and the long parchment unravelled before their eyes.
Yu An immediately recognised her father's style in drawing, but there was something much younger, purer and innocent in the strokes than any of his later works. It was a beautiful garden - she felt like she had seen it, or even played in it before, but it was not in the palace. In the late evening, the moon hanging full in the sky, a pavilion, two handsome youths, their faces exactly alike - one playing the flute, the other playing the guzheng, and an almost ethereal girl dancing in the middle. All their faces were lit up by the moonlight and happiness.
Another long silence, finally, this man with the same face as her father spoke, "Yu An - An from An Wen? (安稳 - meaning safe and secure)"
Yu An nodded and she saw a faint smile play on Uncle Qing's lips.
For a moment, Yu An thought that Uncle Qing's gaze became extremely soft, but that flicker of vulnerability vanished so fast that she wasn't sure if she imagined it.
Uncle Qing spoke in a calm, melodious voice, "I left the palace because of a riddle. If you want me to return, you shall also answer my riddle. You cannot tell anyone else of this riddle."
"Do you know about An Chi?"
Yu An nodded, "My mother told me." She added silently, I was named after her.
"Tell me - who did An Chi love as a man? Your father or me?"
Yu An's eyes widened slightly, she never thought that Uncle Qing, especially as a monk, would ask her such a question.
Uncle Qing suddenly smiled warmly, "I will hear your answer back here in three days."
Uncle Qing nodded at Yu An and then turned back to the tombstone.
"Can I offer some incense to Grand Aunt Jin?" Yu An asked softly.
So, Yu An offered a humble prayer to Grand Aunt Jin before she walked out of the dark cold cave. Her head and heart in turmoil from Uncle Qing's request.
She did not realise until she got on her alpaca that there was another person outside. She raised her head in surprise to see Drifter.
His eyes had no emotion as usual as he sat stone-faced on his horse.
"Master Lang was afraid you might meet desert thieves," Drifter said in his usual monotone way, as if he was merely counting the number of grains of sand underneath their feet.
Yu An nodded in gratitude and her alpaca obediently followed Drifter's horse.
The journey back to the Mo Tribe seemed much longer than the journey from the tribe, and Yu An's heart grew curious as the sky darkened and the stars came out to play. It was a truly dazzling sight but Drifter's gaze remained on the desert, seemingly scarcely aware that night had fallen upon them.
"Drifter?" Yu An called out.
There was no answer but Yu An guessed that he must be listening.
"Master Lang told me that in order for you to master your heartless sword, you need to remember that you used to have a heart," Yu An said and she added thoughtfully, "But, what made you decide to practise such a harsh swordplay?"
Yu An could only hear her own heart racing, her breathing, the cute puffs of breath from her alpaca - Drifter and his horse seemed to glide by in empty silence.
From far, Yu An saw glimpses of fire and she guessed that they were nearing the campsite. It was only then did she hear Drifter's answer, "Because, I have sinned."
She thought she heard wrongly but he continued, "Because I am a sinner."
Yu An honestly did not know expect such an answer and Drifter clearly did not expect an answer - as he then disappeared towards the sparks of fire, leaving Yu An speechless.
When she reached the campsite stable, Yu An was pleasantly surprised to find Master Lang languidly drinking from a gourd of alcohol as if he had been waiting for her. He gestured for a stablehand to take the alpaca and then looked inquiringly towards Yu An.
She nodded, "I met Uncle Qing. He gave me a riddle and told me to give him the answer in three days."
Master Lang gave out a deep throaty laugh, "A whole family of foxes." He gave Yu An a twinkling look in his eyes, "Perhaps you will grow up to be a fox too."
Yu An looked curiously at Master Lang, "Where is Hu Zi?"
Yu An followed Master Lang to the centre of the campsite - there was barbecue, dancing, tons of alcohol, tons and tons of alcohol, Yu An looked in surprised at the bowls of alcohol surrounding Hu Zi who appeared almost unconscious.
"It's a tradition for a newcomer to the tribe to receive a greeting of wine from each tribe member," Master Lang chuckled, "That silly boy was worried you won't be able to drink so much wine and accepted your greeting of wine for you as well. The Mo Tribe alcohol is incredibly strong, it's a surprise that he hasn't passed out."
Yu An remembered how Hu Zi was poisoned earlier in the day and she frantically went to Hu Zi's side. But Hu Zi was already deep within the spell of the alcohol and was hardly sober anymore. Yu An placed her hand on his forehead and was shocked to feel the feverish heat, she was about to ask for water and help in getting Hu Zi away from these rounds of alcohol when Hu Zi shook his forehead away from her hand.
He took another bowl of alcohol from around him and nodded, "I'll drink! Don't make Yu An drink."
Yu An felt such a twinge of pain that all she could do was look at Hu Zi as if she was seeing him for the first time.
The next morning, Yu An was woken up by a tickling feeling at her waist. She blearily opened her eyes and fragments of what happened last night flowed through her mind - Drifter helped her carry Hu Zi back to a tent and she remembered changing cold towels for Hu Zi through the night and she must have fallen asleep halfway...
She looked around and realised that someone had placed her on a soft thick rug with a furry woolly covering.
"If you still don't wake up, I'm going to splash you with water!" Yu An recognised that voice as belonging to Mo Hua.
Yu An realised that someone had brought her to Mo Hua's tent. Mo Hua shook her head at Yu An, "Pig! Even your drunk Yan gentleman friend had already left with the other tribesmen to hunt for the big feast."
"Big feast?" Yu An asked as Mo Hua handed a warm towel to Yu An to clean her face.
"We are preparing for the big feast tomorrow night - it's the night to commemorate the marriages from the rituals. New men joining our tribe, some of our women leaving to go to other tribes. It's a joyous and huge celebration," Mo Hua explained.
"Quick," Mo Hua added as she stepped out of the tent, "We are almost late for the flower picking ceremony."
Yu An was quite happy to be reunited with her alpaca from yesterday. She was given a flower basket and joined the group of young tribeswomen as they headed deep into the desert. She wasn't quite sure why she was involved in this ceremony since she wasn't actually getting married, but truthfully, Yu An didn't dare to bother Mo Hua with additional questions as the image of Mo Hua flipping her spiked whip remained foremost in her mind.
However, Yu An was truly startled dazed when the group finally reached their destination. It must be a mirage, she thought as she stared with wide eyes and her mouth slightly opened.
In the midst of the desert, there was a huge crystal-clear lake. It was the colour of today's sky - a deep blue with specks of white. On the side of the centre of the lake was a large thick ancient tree that looked like a huge snowy cloud, but what seemed like snowdusts were actually tons and tons of little white shimmering flowers. Circling the lake like a protective boundary were rows of red flowers that looked like red spider lilies*, the mythical flowers that lined the paths of the netherworld.
It could not possibly exist in the desert, Yu An thought, her eyes full of terror and admiration, It was so beautiful.
Mo Hua gave a friendly scoff at Yu An's shocked face and started to explain, "This is one of the Mo Tribe's sacred holy spots, outsiders are forbidden to come here but Grandmother said you could join us because you are the granddaughter of one of the most important maidens of the Mo Tribe. This sacred lake is said to be one of the reasons why the Mo Tribe is so powerful in the Sand Kingdom - an important ancestral power ground."
"The reason we are here is to ask for blessings for the love matches," Mo Hua stated as Yu An watched the maidens with their baskets moving towards the large ancient tree.
"But aren't the red spider lilies known for eternal separation?" Yu An asked, slightly confused.
Mo Hua gave a sigh, "Ok, I will explain this as compensation for almost hurting you, though I did not plan to actually kill you."
"Small comfort," Yu An added.
"The legend of the lake is that centuries ago, the Mo Tribe was a small fledging desert tribe and the daughter of the Chief had rescued an injured dying man in the middle of the desert. He was described as having a translucent beauty beyond this world - although his blood soaked his white robes red, there was not a speck of dust on him. He had no memory or knowledge of who he was, but they fell in love and married. However, a year into the marriage, the maiden miscarried and in that deep pain and sadness, it provoked the man's hidden memories. White light bathed the entire tribe as the man's true self was awaken - he was the Water God."
"The Mo Tribe began to prosper due to favouring weather and nature conditions, but the Water God had to leave for his presence only in the desert was causing drought everywhere else. The Water God would continue to visit his mortal wife for a season every year...... but she grew old."
Mo Hua and Yu An's gazes followed the tribe maidens who climbed up the tree to pluck the white snow flowers into their basket. Yu An felt like her body was immediately plunged into a field of scent - a sweet white flowery scent like the powder Mo Hua threw at Drifter yesterday.
"What would you choose?" Mo Hua asked, her voice suddenly feathery light, "If your other half was immortal but you were not - would you choose to reincarnate but your future selves will never have your memories, or to go into deep sleep satisfied with the memories of this lifetime?"
"Our ancient tree gives birth to special white snow flowers that have a strong drowsy effect - in potent amounts, it could cause someone to fall asleep and never wake up. We make it into a powder form," Mo Hua laughed, "To put our enemies to sleep!"
"The Water God's bride** is said to be sleeping under the ancient tree, eternally reliving the sweet memories of her marriage and life with the Water God. Some say the Water God is searching for the immortal dew that can also give his wife eternal life, some say the wife had already entered her next reincarnation but the Water God had taken away their memories and they crystallised into the lake and tree - forever living and loving together in place of them."
"The ancient snow tree that causes deep sleep, the crystal clear water that neutralises the effects of the snow flower," Mo Hua described, "The red spider lilies forever symbolising the death that both encircles, immortalises and separates them two."
"So, we come here, Yu An," Mo Hua said, her voice growing tired with a trace of wistfulness, "For the promise of eternal love."
Yu An decided that she rather like Mo Hua, despite Mo Hua's arrogance and rather mercurial temper. She admired Mo Hua's passionate almost blunt nature, and slightly pitied her for falling for an emotionally cold man like Drifter. She wanted to tell Mo Hua that her youth may not outlast his coldheartedness - but she did not know how to.
Before she left the sacred lake, somehow she thought she saw a beautiful maiden bowing down towards a handsome elegant monk. She was imagining the maiden was Auntie An Chi and the monk was Uncle Qing - and many years from now, far away, perhaps they would be reunited like this.
When she returned to the campsite, she started to ask around for Hu Zi. A bashful young maiden kindly gestured to the further side of the camp.
A figure leaning on the tent. His eyes downcast, closed, sleeping. Yu An always saw Hu Zi as someone younger than her, but it was only now as she observed him did she realised that for many years already, she had to arch up her head to look at him - no longer that silly childhood pretend bodyguard of hers that she could physically looked down on.
How was he in the last few years? He left the palace to join the army and was no longer always by her side. It was only then that Yu An realised that Hu Zi had his own ambition, his own dreams, that he did not share with her.
You have grown complicated, thought Yu An, as one of her palms clutched her chest, and made me feel complicated.
As if to act in petty revenge, Yu An started to shake the other pink and red desert flowers she had plucked along the way over Hu Zi's head.
He raised his head. His eyes did not open but his lips raised upwards, "Yu An?"
Yu An smiled and said, "It's me."
*The legend of the red spider lilies has a very strong Chinese mythology. They usually symbolise lovers who are fated to separate. I actually have a story I once imagined for a pair of lovers associated with red spider lilies! I will write it out one day if I have the time!
** I know there's a korean manhwa called 'Bride of the Water God' and other tales and legends regarding the bride of the Water God. I've actually never really read any of those legends properly (though I want to!) and my myth was mostly inspired by the beautiful drawing of the lake and flowers I came across online and knew I wanted to include in my story.