After Xiao San left, Wan Mei could not sleep. In the middle of the night she searched through the drawers and finally found what she was looking for, the fan made from human skin. And so she sat on her bed holding that fan for the entire night until the sun started to peek through the horizon. Only then did she finally managed to fall into a restless sleep. In her nightmares, she saw Xiao San suddenly becoming a lantern. A lantern made entirely of human skin and on it was his face which was smiling at her warmly.
She screamed and then woke up. The hand holding the fan was shaking and she felt someone standing behind her.
“Hello Mistress Mei,” the person said, his voice was gentle and soothing, “I am your new shadow. My name is February. The people from the courtyard of listen to the bamboo just visited. They requested your presence there and to take the matured blood Gu worm over.”
Wan Mei turned around and saw that this February was also wearing a white robe. He too was quite pleasing to the eye except there seemed to be a sheen covering his eyes as if he was in some daze.
It was then when she realized how different Xiao San was. Although they were both slaves, people of the lowest caste but Xiao San had an unbroken spirit, one that did not allow him to lower his head to anyone and that was why only he was worthy enough to wear that white robe.
So with a frown, Wan Mei walked over to the casket containing the blood Gu and left without giving February a second look.
The Listen to the Bamboo courtyard was still the same. But Wan Mei only felt the soft autumn breeze and the bamboo close to the phoenix yard did not seem to be as green as it was.
Gongzhi was still waiting for her in the room, only this time, the room was lit up by a single lamp that rested on the table, the light effusing a warming and comforting glow.
She slowly moved towards him. Today he was reclining on a pallet, and was wearing a black long robe. His thin fingers rested on the side of the pallet, his posture relaxed.
She did not dare to utter a word. Gongzhi gave up pretending to doze and opened his palm, “Did you bring the Gu worm?”
Wan Mei passed the casket to him, “There is only 2. I have spent too little time as an Earth Slayer.”
Gongzhi did not say anything. He used his palm to crush the box into powder but the two gu worm were fine. They lay complacently on his hand like two drops of dried blood.
“I started to learn martial arts when I was 12. And now 12 years have just passed, yet I have not used gu worms at all,” he explained coldly. “And the monarch Gu within Cha Luo can protect her from a martial artist who has trained for over a century. However she is no match for me. The sharpness of a sword has nothing to do with how many blacksmiths forged it.”
When he finished, he made a cut in Wan Mei’s hand allowing the blood gu worm to travel in the opposite direction of the flow of the blood and slowly she felt her blood start to boil. She sucked in a breath, her entire body was so warm that it was almost too difficult to bear. Her sweat soon soaked her hair.
Gong Zhi’s cool hand tenderly pressed against her back, causing her inner mana to swirl around her body. And at that moment she felt as if her mana poured into every acupoint in her body like a spring flower that had just began to blossom. Although it was slightly painful but there was also undeniable pleasure as well. She could not help but let out a moan.
“At 5 minutes past 9 every morning, do this to summon up your mana,” Gongzhi instructed her when his hands finally left her body. “There are 108 acupoints on your body, I have already drawn the all out for you. You may take them away with you.”
Wan Mei hurriedly nodded, before she could even speak, Gongzhi had already pressed something into her hand. It was a thin long whip, completely black but in the light, there seemed to be rainbow of colors that dimly reflected off it and the handle gave off a soft jade glow.
“Try it.” Gongzhi lowered his eyes and rested his head against his hand.
She lifted the whip and swung it at the space ahead of her. The whip was light and almost seemed to have a life of it’s own, what was even more strange was that when she used it, it did not even stir up a single breeze.
She sighed, “What you mean is, this will be my weapon in the future?”
“It’s name is Shen Ying. It is a kind of magical weapon. Just hard to control,” Gongzhi calmly told her, as he took the whip from her. Holding it with his right arm, he elegantly sent it flying through the air, that whip cut through the air, and wrapped around the lamp on the desk.
The lamp hovered through the air. At first, it followed a strange path and then suddenly shot up and upon reaching the ceiling, it lit up the entire room like a swiftlet that had managed to break through a cloud and now flew unrestrained in the air.
“This is the easiest technique called the cloud breaker,” he told her still in a cold voice, “I will repeat it three times. You must remember it. Come here again in half a months time and it is best if you know how to do it.”
His words left no room for her to hesitate but Wan Mei stared back at him, her eyes steady and she did not show any signs of objection. The man in front of her carried an air around him, an air that had nothing to do with the expensive silks he wore, it was one ingrained deep in his bones, in every movement he made and it seemed as if all the gods would bow at his feet in his presence.
“Yes.” Wan Mei replied after a long period of silence. She remembered every stroke, every twist in the path the lamp made through the air until it returned to the desk. The flame never flickering at all as it traveled through the air.
Gongzhi’s hand returned to the pallet. His movements still relaxed but she could see sweat gathering on his forehead.
He did not say anything for a long time and so Wan Mei slowly made her way towards him and used her sleeve to wipe off the sweat and gently unclasped his belt. But when she removed half of his clothes, he suddenly grabbed his hand, stopping her from doing so. “Today is my mother’s remembrance day. She loved to watch puppet shows usually. Watch one with me,” he explained in a low voice.
He then clapped his hands and immediately someone scuffled into the room. They brought in a white curtained frame, lit up a lamp behind it and then the the show The legend of the white snake began .
At first, Wan Mei was too afraid to say anything. Yet she could not help but wonder how a blind man could watch a puppet show. And then when she saw him lean into her, she realized her role.
“Right now Maiden White has entered. She is carrying a parasol, next to her is Xiao Qing. Xiao Qing is a little shorter than her….” she cleared her throat and started explaining to her the comings and goings of the various characters. She also mimicked the singing and tone of the characters and described how Maiden Bai encountered Xu Xian and the ugliness of Fa Hai.
Towards the end, Gongzhi’s eyes started to drop and she started to detect an air of despair and loneliness emanating from him. It was a loneliness that was borderless.
“Perhaps his Mother described to him what occurred during the puppet show until they were separated in life and death,” Wan Mei thought and couldn’t help but think about her own late mother.
Whether rich or poor, everyone only had one mother, one person who would protect you regardless.
Perhaps it was because it was something that they both shared, so she no longer felt as afraid. After the show ended, she lifted her head and asked him, “Gongzhi, how many years has your mother passed away for?”
It took a long time before Gongzhi’s eyes finally fluttered open again. The darkness in his eyes fathomless, “My mother has not passed away. She simply does not wish to see me. She told me that every day on this date is her Remembrance Day.”
Wan Mei stared at him in shock and quickly closed her mouthas she no longer knew what to say. She could only awkwardly watch as the performers slowly filtered out. Beside her, Gongzhi’s covered his weakness and once more put up his cold demeanour that was as cold and firm as a slab of rock from a mountain.
“If you wish for your shadow to return then prove to Cha Luo two things,” he told her after a while, “First you must show her how worthy you are. Secondly, only that person can be your shadow.”
Wan Mei felt something strike her heart and she felt as if she realized something and was just about to thank him when he suddenly waved his hand.
“Go now,” he told her, “I will order someone to deliver some fire Gu flies to you. Learn to control them, that way you will become more resolute.”
And so 2 months passed like that. Wan Mei met Gongzhi for 4 times during that time. Once every 15 days, it was as punctual as time.
She learned a lot in those two months. She already knew half of the techniques she was required to learn and could now control the fire Gu flies like second nature, making them sleep or awake and even creating a simple shape with them.
She did not go to any missions within this time and she did not see Xiao San once during this time either. As a new Heavenly Slayer, she was free and was forced to face that February each day.
This new shadow was afraid of death, was good at slacking off and flattering people. He was the exact opposite to Xiao San.
The only similarity he shared with him was that he too was infected with an arctic gu poison and he would suffer a relapse on the same day as him. So Wan Mei still had to ask the chief for an antidote on that day regardless.
When she went, she took a fire gu fly with her and commanded it to sleep in her left palm. The room where Cha Luo met with her was still dark. The only difference was that the incense had changed into a one made from peach blossoms and was barely noticeable in the air.
She was frowning when Wan Mei came in but as soon as she saw Wan Mei, she immediately broke into a warm charming smile. “Slayer Mei is here. It was a shame that this slave of mine had ruined my mood, but fortunately, you are here. A talent the Gate of Ghosts cannot afford to lose.”
Hurriedly, Wan Mei lowered her head but when she saw the person kneeling by Cha Luo’s feet, she almost gasped in surprise. It was Xiao San, Xiao San whom she had not seen for 2 months. Just looking at his back, she could see that he had lost a lot of weight and his shoulders were shaking uncontrollably.
Cha Luo kicked him, “I told you to cut my toenails. How dare cut a hole in them? Are you tired of living?”
He did not reply. But the knuckles of the hand clutching the tiny pair of scissors had gone white. Wan Mei knew he was suffering a relapse of his arctic Gu poisoning and she knew Cha Luo purposefully picked this time and day to serve her. But she had no choice but to fall silent. So silent that she could even hear the pain in his every breath which seemed to squeeze her heart every time she listened to it.
To her side, Cha Luo gave her a meaningful smile, “So Slayer Mei, how do you think I should punish such a slave?”
Wan Mei’s head remained low. “He was once my shadow. It is not appropriate for me to decide. I will listen to your decision, Chief.”
Indifferent and uncaring, she felt that she had managed to grasp the right response, yet Cha Luo refused to let them off. “I heard Gongzhi is teaching you some whipping techniques right? I think it will be good if you demonstrate it to me and use this slave as a target. Do not hide any interesting techniques from me.”
Wan Mei pressed her lips together, “But I did not bring Sheng Ying with me…”
“That is simple,” Cha Luo immediately responded, “Someone, go to Courtyard Mei. Bring Slayer Mei’s whip Shen Ying over.”
Wan Mei felt herself go pale, she pressed her lips even tighter and in panic, she stole a glance at Xiao San.
He was still kneeling in front of Cha Luo, his back facing her, but he was no longer shaking. His back was straight as if telling her he could handle it.
It did not take long before Shen Ying arrived. Wan Mei felt like crying but no tears came out; she could only stiffly hold the whip in front of her.
Cha Luo was impatient. She stretched and ordered, “I think I should call Xing Feng over. Although he is old now, so he is slower at peeling the skin off people.”
The candle swayed slightly as she spoke. Biting down on her lip, she finally let Shen Ying fly drawing a beautiful arch in the air.
“Cloud breaker!” Following the shadow of the whip, Wan Mei yelled out, her voice strained in suffering as the whip landed onto Xiao San’s shoulder. The skin cracked under the lash of the whip. Blood splattered like a shower of petals, blanketing the ground. Xiao San hung his head further, his fingernails digging onto the green tiles beneath him.
“The fall of the dark gold!”
“The reunion and separation of the moon!”
“Tens of Thousands of shadows!” Wan Mei continued to yell as Shen Ying slowly became drenched in blood and Wan Mei felt herself slowly falling into an abyss of madness. The whip could destroy anything, let alone merely flesh and bone.
He no longer knew where his injuries were now, nor how much blood had oozed out. To Xiao San, what was painful no longer felt painful, only the demon that was ushering him to fall lash by lash.
The tiles beneath him crumbled in his hands and then grounded to powder by his fingers. He lost his final support for his control. Finally, after the sixth lash, he collapsed. The green dust in his hands scattered, covering his face.
He felt as if he could see Cha Luo clapping through the dust and Wan Mei, whip in one hand, was holding her chest with the other. I that second, she seemed to have aged several years.
He blinked, and felt a little pain in his heart when he saw her state. But as the last bit of dust fell, he felt his consciousness also falling out of his grasp. He could no longer see his Wan Mei. His sight as covered, just like the merciless Gate of Ghosts who covered their world, stopping their love from breaking out from the stormy clouds and into the sun.
And shadows started to drift into the room, some sweeping up the blood and others dragging Xiao San out.
It was then when Wan Mei remember the fire gu fly in her hand and summoned it awake.
The fire gu fly seemed to drift in the wind, circling around Xiao San’s head, stopping in front of his eyes, brushing past his eyelashes before landing on the ground.
“Then let us be of one heart. So strong that we can even cut apart gold. You avenge your family, I gain my freedom, and then we will fly away together.”
That was the promise they made that night on the swing. Wan Mei hoped that when Xiao San saw the fire Gu fly he would remember the firefly that witnessed their love that night and his promise that he would never betray her.
But Wan Mei did not know if he was still conscious, whether he saw her gift or if he would remember. The only thing she could do was watch as he was dragged out, leaving a trail of blood behind him.
“This is the fire Gu fly Gongzhi told me to learn to control,” Wan Mei hurriedly explained when she saw Cha Luo’s suspicion raising. “I have not quite learnt how to control them so they attached themselves on me and I accidentally brought them here.”
Cha Luo smiled when she heard her explanation. “Oh, that is alright. Miss Mei is here for the antidote right? Please wait.”
Wan Mei did not know how she managed to return to her courtyard or when dawn broke. She remained sitting there until she was suddenly dragged back into reality by February’s howl of pain. Only then did sge remember the antidote she had in her hand.
February rested for half a day after he consumed the antidote and upon seeing her, his eyes were all scrunched up in a scowl as if reminding her of the pain he had suffered.
“Mistress, I just remembered something,” he told her weakly. “Yesterday Feng Zhu came and said there was a mission that was supposed to be completed by the Absolute Slayer but coincidentally she felt unwell so no one is willing to replace her position.”
Wan Mei stood up, “What kind of a mission is it?”
“Assassinate Qing Yu Sang and frame Fang Ge with the murder,” February replied, “it is a difficult task. Even the Absolute Slayer has tried to wriggle out from it. You must not accept it.”
“I will accept it.” Wan Mei told him evenly, her voice firm and clear.
February promptly opened his mouth, “But Qin Yu Sang is infatuated with martial arts. He is skilled in many different techniques in martial arts and he is just as skilled as Fang Ge. Besides he trusts Fang Ge with his life. Mistress you must consider carefully.”
“I said I will accept it. Remember I do not like repeating myself twice!” Wan Mei scolded, and threw one of the brushes lying on her desk at him.
The brush hit him on the left of his chest. February gritted his teeth yet did not say anything. But when he lowered his head, his eyes shone of resentment.
NB: Legend of the white snake: a classical tragic chinese love story about a snake spirit, Madame Bai who falls in love with a human called Xu Xian and married him. However Fahai, a tortoise spirit that has taken the form of a Buddhist Monk and a spirit hunter discovers this couple and dies everything to separate them, showing Xu Xian his wife’s true form and when that does not deter him, imprisons him. Finally when Madame Bai, the snake spirit saves her husband, he imprisons her under the Leifeng Tower, separating her from her husband and son. There are many adaptations and translations.
And for those learning chinese: