That storytelling establishment was named Bai Shi Shuo. According to the people in the city, this storytelling house was originally a famous theater. Later, a big fire burned down a big part of it. It was then left aside for several years before it was turned into a storytelling house.
“A theater?” Song Ci pondered over it as he walked. In the first scene he saw earlier in the mirror, he was dressed in a stage costume–a red and blue outfit with white soft, flowing sleeves1 like that of an opera costume.
Rong Bai turned his head. “What are you thinking about?”
“I feel that there is some connection between this theater and Miss Feng.” Song Ci did not dare to affirm his guess. He did not understand the link between them either. But somehow, he always felt as if there was some unknown relationship between them.
However, they had to find the common thread in these matters before they could solve all the puzzles.
Song Ci’s mind was in a fog.
Rong Bai said, “Why vex yourself over it? You merely have to walk on ahead and you will naturally know everything.”
“Walk on ahead? To where?” For a moment, he did not get Rong Bai’s pointer.
“The storytelling house.” Rong Bai answered.
Both of them left the Feng Residence and got into the horse carriage Feng Changyue had ordered someone to prepare. Then, they headed for the west of the city.
Song Ci sat opposite Rong Bai and watched as Rong Bai leaned against the wall of the carriage and closed his eyes to rest as soon as he got onto it. Although he knew that Rong Bai was not really sleeping, he still felt embarrassed enough to speak up and disturb him.
After hesitating for a moment, he decided to keep his question for another day.
It was then Rong Bai opened his eyes slightly and looked at Song Ci with those ink-black eyes. “What do you want to ask?”
Song Ci grinned in embarrassment and asked, “Master Rong, do you know what the Xingluo Chessboard is?”
The expression on Rong Bai’s face remained unchanged. After a pause, he said, “The Xingluo Chessboard is an array passed down from ancient times. The enclosed land within the array will form the chessboard, while humans make up the chess pieces. It’s an array that’s both righteous and evil.”
His explanation was so simple that Song Ci did not get it. He probed, “Is it just a game of chess? Or does everyone in the array have to play a game of chess to break the array?
Rong Bai smiled and explained. “Xingluo Chessboard is an array with a wide range. As long as the object to hold up the array and the caster are powerful enough, even the entire human world can be designated as the chessboard. All the people within the array are the chess pieces. Each chess piece is controlled by the chess player himself. If the chess piece strayed from the original path, the array would suck it dry until the person is reduced to ashes. The power will then be transferred to the chess player.”
Song Ci looked as if he understood a little. “What did you mean by it being both righteous and evil?”
“It depends on the chess player. If he only wants to play a game and call it a day after finishing the game, then all the pieces will return to normal. But if he has another motive, then, that is another story.” Rong Bai explained lazily. “This array was originally created by the Devil King while he was thinking of his lover, so, it is by nature, not a demonic art.”
Song Ci shrank back. It suddenly hit him, and he blurted, “Then, this Qinchuan…”
Rong Bai raised his eyelids to look at him, but his tone was still neutral. “The entire city of Qinchuan has been designated as the chessboard, and all the people in the city are the chess pieces on the chessboard. That is why one can only enter but not leave this city.”
“No wonder Mirror Old Man has been acting so out of character. So he knew about this too!” Song Ci said in annoyance. “If we had known that there was a Xingluo Chessboard array here, we wouldn’t have come in!”
It was only when he said it out loud that he realized Rong Bai must have known it early on. And yet, he walked into this Qinchuan City without so much as a word. Song Ci looked at him in puzzlement.
Rong Bai said, “Everyone who entered the Xingluo Chessboard array will have their memories tampered. They will see themselves as that specific chess piece. In addition, the time in the array differs from the outside world. If you don’t want to miss the next Demon Gate, then I have to break the array in person.”
“How?” Song Ci asked.
“There are two ways.” A gentle smile appeared on Rong Bai’s face. He was remarkably patient in the face of Song Ci’s curiosity. “The first is to enter the array and break it from within.”
“And the second?” Song Ci probed.
“The second way is to slaughter everyone in the city and destroy all the chess pieces. That will naturally break the array.” He said.
Song Ci licked his lips and said with a smile. “I think the first method is pretty good.”
That said, Rong Bai should be intending to take the first approach too. For one, he was not that kind of evil person who would resort to unscrupulous means to achieve his goals. Second, if he wanted to massacre an entire city of humans, he could do it outside the city; there was no need for him to enter the city.
Rong Bai smiled softly. “Aren’t you afraid?”
“Afraid of what?” Song Ci looked bewildered.
Rong Bai said nothing more and simply beckoned to Song Ci. “Come over and sit here.”
Song Ci obediently sat next to Rong Bai. Just when he was about to ask why, he felt a heaviness on his shoulder. Rong Bai leaned his head on him and gave a lazy yawn. Then, he took a deep breath and whispered, “Little Song, you smell so good.”
Song Ci’s body tensed up. On hearing the pleasant voice in his ear, his heart started pounding violently, just like the time he saw that scene emerged in the mirror.
After associating with Rong Bai for so long, this was the first time he heard Rong Bai addressing him with no suffix.
Rong Bai was a reticent person by nature. He hardly initiated conversations, let alone call others by their names. He even addressed Wen Changchu as ‘pup’.
But today, Song Ci had heard Rong Bai calling him “Little Song” twice. He felt flattered.
On reflection, it seemed as if he has not formally introduced himself by name to Rong Bai.
Song Ci thought about it until his mind was a whirl. He did not notice the following words Rong Bai had muttered. “It’s my scent.”
Rong Bai leaned against his shoulder for a long time without moving. Song Ci lowered his head and saw him with his eyes closed. His face was peaceful as if he was asleep.
He recalled the first time he met Rong Bai. This heavenly Daoist priest had been yawning constantly as if he was still sleepy. This went on for several days until they went to Mo Yao. Only then did Rong Bai improved a little.
Perhaps Rong Bai was a sleepy person by nature. But he fought against his drowsiness because he had a matter to attend. When Song Ci thought about how Rong Bai was so worn out because of himself, he could not help but feel guilty. Thus, he relaxed his shoulders to let Rong Bai rest more comfortably on his shoulder.
Song Ci did not dare to move at will and simply sat upright. When he felt bored, he lowered his head to pick at his clothes. It was only when the carriage reached the west of the city that he softly woke Rong Bai up.
Over ten years ago, the west of the city was one of the most prosperous streets in the City of Qinchuan. At that time, there was a theater by the name of “San Chi Tai”2 located here. The people who came and went all enjoyed making their way here to watch the plays.
In the plays, the nobles and the officials, the scholars and the ladies of prominent families, as well as the various characters of various identities, all integrated into the story, becoming a part of the lingering and melodious narration.
He followed Rong Bai into the storytelling house and saw a three-feet high vermilion stage in the middle of the hall. There was a wooden table on the stage, and a storyteller’s gavel block3, a folding fan, and a steaming cup of tea on the table.
There were only a few people sitting in the audience below the stage. Perhaps it was because of Miss Feng’s incident that so few of them had come to listen to the storytelling.
There was a spiral staircase on both sides of the stage leading to the private rooms on the second story. The entire storytelling house still kept to the original structure of the theater, with the first and second stories surrounding the stage. Every spot had a view of the scene on the stage.
There was an old woman sitting at the table on the stage at the moment. She was dressed in a long, dark robe and there was an emerald green hairpin in her hair. She swayed her body with her eyes shut. “Listen up, ladies and gentlemen. Today, we will not talk about anything else except for the past a few decades back.”
This surprised Song Ci. It was the first time he saw a storyteller who was an old woman.
Wen-er walked on ahead and spoke, pulling Song Ci back to his senses. “That fan was hanging on this wall back then.”
It was a wall hung with all kinds of objects. There was an unlit red lantern hanging on each side. Wen-er walked up to the wall and pointed to an empty space. “Right here.”
All the attention of the people in the storytelling house fell on them the moment they stepped in. When the crowd saw that it was someone from the Feng Residence, they figured out the purpose for their trip here and started to engage in discussions over them in a low voice.
When the aged storyteller heard the commotion, she opened one eye to take a look before saying in an old voice. “May the newly arrived audience please take a seat. Do not create a disturbance.”
Song Ci was not interested in the story she was about to narrate, but the stairs on both sides of the stage looked and felt familiar to him. He could not help but walk towards the stairs. As soon as his hand touched the railings of the stairs, the loud bang of the storyteller’s block rang out.
Song Ci was so shocked he gave a shudder. He heard the old woman say, “More than ten years ago, there was a San Chi Tai Theatre, whose fame and name had spread far and wide. The famous actor, Jiang Niangzi,4 was a renowned beauty. A great fire wiped away the traces of Jiang Niangzi’s existence, but it could not erase the sad and beautiful memories left behind.”
Song Ci stopped in his tracks and stood on the first step of the stairs. He looked blankly at the stairs, although he was still listening carefully to what the old woman was saying.
“Speaking of Jiang Niangzi, everyone here should know the other person, other than Jiang Niangzi, who was a part of this touching story. He’s the young master, Feng Zhuojun.” The old woman’s voice was slow and firm. When the audience below the stage heard this, someone asked, “Isn’t he called Feng Changyue now?”
The old woman said, “Indeed. But decades back, he was still called Feng Zhuojun.”
“Being a charming man in those days, Feng Zhuojun had captured the hearts of many maidens in the City of Qinchuan. He went to San Chi Tai to watch the opera and, by coincidence, watched a play Jiang Niangzi was in. Both of them fell in love at first sight, and Feng Zhuojun made a vow to redeem5 Jiang Niangzi.”
“Later on, Feng Zhuojun’s personality underwent a big change after he was captured by the bandits. When he returned, he turned his back on Jiang Niangzi. Although he redeemed Jiang Niangzi, he no longer had anything to do with Jiang Niangzi. He got married, had children, and even sent someone to burn Jiang Niangzi’s stage costumes to make Jiang Niangzi give up on him.”
When someone beside him continued the dialogue, Song Ci cast a puzzled look over and saw an unexpected acquaintance.
The man was dressed in casual clothes and his long hair was tied into a ponytail. He smiled at Song Ci. “Song Ci, I didn’t expect to meet you here.”
“I didn’t expect to either.” Song Ci was astonished.
This person was Liang Jiujiu. Since the chaos in Mo Yao, Song Ci had never seen him again. He had never expected him to come to the City of Qinchuan.
“What are you doing here?” He asked.
“Most of the previous disciples from Mo Yao’s School of Pingluan came here, but they never returned. So much had happened in Mo Yao. I had nowhere to go, so I could only come here to look for those people and wait for them to recall the sect leader. I never expected you to be here.” Liang Jiujiu seemed to be a little different from before.
Song Ci thought to himself, who knows if the person before him is still Liang Jiujiu? So he pretended to sound him out, “Liang Jiujiu, did you come alone?”
Liang Jiujiu smiled. “I came with my elder brother.”
After a moment’s pause, he added, “You can stop calling me Liang Jiujiu. I have a new name now. It’s Zhu Yun.”
水袖 literally water sleeves. The long, flowing silk sleeve extensions (usually white) in Chinese opera costumes, which are worn by both male and female characters
- 三尺台 San Chi Tai; literally means “Three-Feet Stage”
醒木 a storyteller’s gavel; it’s actually just a block of wood used by storytellers to get their audience’s attention by banging it on the table.
- 娘子 Niangzi. it’s a form of address for one’s wife, or a polite form of address for a young woman.
- 赎身 Redeem (a person); paying a price to ‘buy’ the freedom of those who have been sold into certain trades, e.g. slaves and courtesans (i.e. prostitutes), and in this case, a performer in an opera troupe.