The moment Song Ci heard the name, he cast a glance at Rong Bai.
The change in this bird demon was really drastic compared to how he was before. When they met in Mo Yao a few days ago, he was evasive and looked very timid and fearful, especially of Rong Bai. But now, there was a faint, enigmatic smile on his childish face as he stood on the next layer of steps above Song Ci.
Song Ci instinctively felt something off, but he could not be sure, and so he subconsciously turned to Rong Bai.
By coincidence, Rong Bai was looking at him, too. When their eyes met, Rong Bai raised his chin slightly and said to Song Ci, “Come here.”
Song Ci was about to turn around, but Zhu Yun grabbed his wrist. He smiled at Rong Bai and said, “Your Excellency Rong, the little fox is such a curious one. Why not satisfy his desire to know?”
Rong Bai smiled and asked, “Then, can you satisfy my desire to kill?”
Zhu Yun did not answer, but there was a change in the way he looked at Rong Bai. A sharp Song Ci noticed this subtle change and wanted to shake off Zhu Yun’s hand, but then he felt Zhu Yun’s fingers tightened around him.
Song Ci felt a brilliant light slid before his eyes. Then, the light around him dimmed. A vermillion three-feet tall stage appeared in front of him, and the graceful figure of a person stood in the center of the stage.
A long and soft blue skirt trailed on the stage, with pleats stacked upon one another. The person’s long, satiny black hair was adorned with colorful golden branches and jade leaves, which sparkled under the light. It was a dazzling sight to behold.
The back of the person on the stage was facing Song Ci. The person stood in silence and raised a hand, and the flowing sleeve1 slid down the arm as those slender fingers formed into a delicate orchid pose.2 A soft and melodious opera tune rang out.
There was such bitterness in his voice that it jolted Song Ci. He could not help but furrow his eyebrows.
The person on the stage took a step around, exposing a pair of exquisite embroidered shoes under the blue skirt. Tapping lightly with the tip of the shoes, the person half-turned, revealing a side profile.
Song Ci noted that this person’s face was as fair as white snow, with slender, willow eyebrows. The area around the eyes was thickly painted in red. With a slight parting of the red lips, the next line emerged. “The most fleeting in the mortal realm: the beauty that wanes in the mirror, and the blossoms that fall from the tree—”5
The person finished this sentence and took out a folding fan from a flowing sleeve. The sorrowful eyes softened and filled with tenderness as the person caressed the folding fan and murmured, “Zhuojun, Zhuojun…”
Song Ci’s frown deepened as he looked at this person. He had realized who was on the stage at that moment. It was the person mentioned earlier, Jiang Niangzi, a famous San Chi Tai performer decades back.
He did not know what he was looking at. Was it a sham of a scene conjured up by Zhu Yun, or was it an incident that had truly existed and happened many years ago?
Song Ci was lost in thought when he heard the sudden sound of jumbled footsteps. Then, the light brightened, and a group of people burst into the spot before the stage. On hearing the commotion, Jiang Niangzi snapped out of it and looked at the two rows of servants below the stage. A layer of frost covered Jiang Niangzi’s face.
Then a young woman, with several maidservants in tow, swayed her hips and strolled towards Jiang Niangzi.
Jiang Niangzi watched with cool detachment and unobtrusively hid the fan in the sleeves, all without saying a word.
The young woman walked up the stairs to the stage and said with her head held high. “Who would expect our world-famous dan6 to end up with such an empty audience? Didn’t they say all three plays a month would be a full house?”
Jiang Niangzi half turned around, not willing to look at her or even pay her any attention. It looked as Jiang Niangzi was about to turn around and leave.
“Stop right there!” The woman snapped. “Jiang Liang, there are too many absurd remarks about you and my husband floating around in the city. I’m here today to put an end to it!”
On hearing this, Jiang Niangzi paused and said in a cold voice. “Your husband and I no longer have anything to do with each other. The mouths of others are not something you and I can control. Why take those groundless matters to heart?”
What surprised Song Ci was that this Jiang Niangzi was a man.
“I didn’t care about it before, but I’m with child now. I don’t want my son to grow up listening to those filthy words.” The woman stroked her stomach. “Just treat it as the first thing I do for my child as a mother.”
Jiang Liang’s expression changed as he7 cast a hostile glance at the woman’s stomach. His eyes dimmed as he asked in a soft voice. “What do you want?”
“I heard that my husband has left a fan with you. I came to retrieve it for him today.” When the woman saw Jiang Liang compromising, she could not help but smile triumphantly.
Jiang Liang replied after hearing this. “I have already thrown that fan away.”
The woman looked as if she had expected his reply. She laughed and said, “Even if you have thrown it away, you still need to be taught a lesson. Otherwise, how can we shut all those mouths?”
With that, she cast a meaningful glance at the maidservant beside her. On receiving her signal, the maidservant took a sudden stride forward and swung her hand to slap Jiang Liang on the face. The sound was so loud and clear that even Song Ci felt the pain.
Jiang Liang took the slap head-on. He pursed his lips and said nothing.
“I originally wanted to slap you myself, but it’s not convenient for me to do so in my state, so I have to let someone else do it on my behalf. You just have to remember this.” The woman said viciously, “But the upcoming beating is for you to keep in mind for the rest of your life not to have any designs on my husband. Otherwise, I’ll rip your tongue out. We’ll see how you can perform then.”
The moment she said that, the servants standing at the bottom of the stage rushed up and started punching and kicking Jiang Liang without so much as a word.
Song Ci was aware that the scene before him was not real, but his heart still clenched. He wanted to stop them, but his feet seemed as if they were nailed to the ground. He could not utter a sound either. From start to finish, he was just a bystander witnessing the assault.
Jiang Liang fell to the ground from the kicking. He curled his body into a ball to protect the folding fan tightly in his bosom. He remained motionless even as the others rain blows on him. Even if he had to grit his teeth, he would not let out a single cry of pain.
The woman stood aside and smiled in delight as if she were enjoying a play. It was when she finally got tired and had enough of laughing that she stopped the servants. She walked over to Jiang Liang and came to a stop a distance away.
Jiang Liang’s beautiful aqua-blue costume was smeared with muddy footprints, and there were bloodstains on the cuffs and collar. The hairpins in his hair were scattered all over. He looked disheveled, and he cut a sorry figure.
He lowered his head, silent.
The woman looked at his appearance in satisfaction, then smiled and said, “Remember what I’ve said today. If this happens again, I’ll kill you.”
With that, her expression changed. She threw Jiang Liang a look of disgust, then turned around and smiled at the bottom of the stage. “My dear husband, what do you think? Did I do it right?”
Jiang Liang stiffened upon hearing this, but he did not raise his head.
It was then Song Ci realized there was a man standing under the darkness at the bottom of the stage. The tall and elegantly dressed man was precisely Feng Changyue in his youth.
He said to the woman helplessly, “Come down quickly. Now that you are pregnant, you must be careful not to tire yourself out.”
The woman soaked up his mollycoddling and smiled as the maidservant helped her down. “I’m not tired. I’m more than willing to give birth to a young master for my husband.”
Feng Changyue came up to her and took her other hand. “You can do whatever you want. What matters most is your happiness.”
The woman snuggled up to Feng Changyue and the two departed. All this while, Feng Changyue had never cast a single glance at Jiang Liang. It was as if Jiang Liang was someone of no significance to him.
Jiang Liang only sat up when everyone dispersed. He took out the well-protected folding fan from his bosom and opened it gently. A drop of tear suddenly slipped from his eye and landed beside his lips. That beautiful color bloomed.
For no apparent reason, Song Ci felt the rage welled up in him. He furrowed his eyebrows, but he did not know who he should vent his anger on. On second thought, he was merely an outsider. This farce had nothing to do with him at all.
Song Ci was struggling between both emotions when he felt a tightening on his wrist. The scene before him disappeared in an instant. When he lifted his eyes. he met Rong Bai’s eyes.
Rong Bai was holding on to Song Ci’s other wrist. Exerting a little force, he pulled Song Ci to his side. Zhu Yun tactfully released his hand and smiled as he asked Song Ci. “Did you see it?”
Song Ci seized the opportunity to ask, “What was that you showed me?”
“The past a few decades ago.” Zhu Yun said, “Aren’t you curious about what happened here? Come to me. There’s more I can tell you.”
The way he put it was pretty blunt. It was clear he wanted to lure Song Ci over. Rong Bai was not pleased to hear this. His eyes darkened, and he tightened his grip on Song Ci’s wrist. A current of cold air abruptly permeated the air around them, causing everyone in the storytelling house to shudder for no rhyme or reason.
The air current transformed into a faint, murderous aura and charged towards Zhu Yun. The wind brushed past his hair. He chuckled, but did not look the slightest bit afraid. “I heard that Your Excellency Rong had never expressed a desire for anything. Who would have thought that there would be a time you care about someone?”
Song Ci was afraid that Rong Bai would strike out. He did not call him Master Rong for nothing. Earlier in the City of Le Yu, Rong Bai had destroyed the entire city without so much a shred of mercy.
Song Ci could not really tell if Rong Bai was a good or bad person.
He backhandedly grabbed Rong Bai’s wrist and said to Zhu Yun, “Thank you for your kindness, but I have something important to do. This curiosity of mine is inconsequential.”
With this, he tugged Rong Bai gently and said to him, “Master Rong, let’s go.”
Zhu Yun sighed with regret. “Fine, I knew it…”
Song Ci grabbed Rong Bai and turned to leave, thinking that this Zhu Yun was not someone to be taken lightly. Even Wen Changchu was intimidated when he first saw Rong Bai. But this bird demon did not even show any fear. Obviously, he was a character more powerful than Wen Changchu.
Rong Bai was like a docile fox being led away by Song Ci. Just as the two were about to step across the threshold of the storytelling establishment, the old lady in the hall suddenly slapped the storyteller’s gavel8 again. “Gentlemen, please hold on!”
Song Ci was startled yet again. He stopped in his tracks and looked back to see the old woman straightening her hunched back. She looked at him and said in a slow, aged voice, “On the chessboard, you will be annihilated if you make one wrong move. Please keep your emotions in check and do not act rashly.”
The more Song Ci listened, the more he felt it was a warning. Then, it hit him that this old storyteller before him must be no ordinary mortal.
Fair enough. There must have been demons and ghosts hidden all around the City of Qinchuan with the Xingluo Chessboard Array cast over it.
Song Ci gave a slight nod of his head, thanked her, and stepped out to take his leave of the storytelling house.
On the way back, Feng Changyue, Jiang Liang, Feng Yingqiu and Mirror Old Man popped up alternately in his mind. Song Ci thought about it, but could not figure out the whys and wherefores.
Rong Bai watched in silence as Song Ci’s eyebrows relaxed one moment and scrunched up the next moment. He spoke up. “It’s not that I don’t want to tell you. But the truth that you figure out for yourself will be more genuine than if you were to hear of it from others.”
Song Ci was momentarily dazed. He raised his eyes to look at Rong Bai. “What?”
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
兰花指 Literally orchid finger. It’s a hand gesture in traditional dances.
- 新欢 as in a new flame or a new sweetheart/lover. Also literally new joy
- 《蝶恋花·阅尽天涯离别苦》by Wang Guowei (王国维), courtesy name Jing’an (靜安) or Boyu (伯隅), was a Chinese historian and poet. The author uses the flower as a metaphor for his wife, and the poem expresses the author’s mixed feelings of shame, regret, love, and compassion by writing about the situation he saw when he returned home after being tormented by a period of separation. It also laments the passing of time.
- Continuation from the above poem.
- 旦角 dan, female roles in Chinese opera that are traditionally played by specialized male actors.
- FINALLY I CAN USE A PRONOUN FOR HIM :V
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.