This was a Rong Bai unfamiliar to Song Ci. This person, who was like an immortal descended from Heaven, had never been so aloof and distant before. Even on their first encounter, he had on a lazy smile.
Song Ci was momentarily dazed before he replied, “You’re so good-looking.”
The corner of Rong Bai’s lips curved into a smile when he heard this, but the smile did not reach his eyes. He said with some derision. “Not as good-looking as you.”
Song Ci could tell that he was mocking the feminine makeup on his face, so he gave a dry cough and shifted his gaze away. He thought, Master Rong is truly Master Rong. Even though he is now Feng Zhuojun, his imposing manner is still hard to ignore.
The young master commanded the attendants to call the dog back and glared at the pudgy woman as he said to Rong Bai, “Cousin, let’s go.”
When the woman heard Song Ci saying that he was the magistrate’s young master, she had wisely kept her mouth shut and plastered an apologetic smile on her face.
Because of Song Ci’s interference, both of them did not start hurling abuse at each other. This completely changed the original situation.
The instant the young master turned to walk away, the entire sky darkened. It was as if a dark silk cloth had been draped over the sky. The commoners cried out in alarm. Then, heart-wrenching screams rang out.
Song Ci panicked. Everyone around him was acting strangely. Those who had participated in the scene earlier were clutching their chests in agony. They toppled to the ground and thrashed around as if experiencing great pain.
In an instant, he recalled that penetrating pain in his heart and swerved his head to look at Rong Bai. Rong Bai was standing alone, all prim and proper, as he looked at the wailing people around him. There was a look of doubt on his face.
Song Ci did not know if it was just his imagination, but he somehow felt as if this Rong Bai was a little slow to react. He ran a few steps to Rong Bai and asked in a fluster. “Master Rong, do you feel uncomfortable in the chest? Does it hurt?”
Rong Bai raised his eyes, moving his line of sight from the ground to Song Ci’s face. He repeated with uncertainty. “Master Rong?”
“I mean… Young Master Feng.” Song Ci hurriedly corrected himself. “Young Master Feng, do you feel unwell like them?”
Rong Bai replied lightly, “No.”
Serious, sunlit eyes stared at Song Ci. “What’s happening?”
How in the world would Song Ci know? After confirming that Rong Bai was fine, he squatted down to touch the Young Master with his hand. “Hey. What’s wrong with you?”
The Young Master was curled up into a ball, and cold sweat had broken out on his forehead. His face was contorted with pain. His body was emitting a faint white light. It was not conspicuous under the sunlight, so for a moment, Song Ci did not notice it.
The Young Master was in so much pain he could hardly speak; he could only let out one whimper after another. When Song Ci finally discovered the glow on him, his limbs had started to turn transparent. Wisps of white mist floated up the sky from his body, swallowing his limbs bit by bit.
Song Ci instantly got it when he saw this. He swept a glance around. Everyone around him was in the same state. They were all clutching their chests and screaming incessantly. This was clearly the Chessboard absorbing their lives, turning them into its sacrifices.
What terrified Song Ci was that all these people had broken away from their intended paths because of his words. That’s to say, his slip of the tongue by calling out for Master Rong had led all of them into taking the wrong chess path.
He was a murderer.
“No…” Song Ci had never expected that he would one day cause the death of so many people in such a way, even if it was not his intention.
Extending his trembling hands to catch those wisps of white mist floating up into the sky, he looked up and shouted, “They did nothing wrong!”
Just as Song Ci was overwhelmed with guilt and fear, and was at a loss, someone grabbed his wrist and hauled him up. When he turned his head, he met Rong Bai’s eyes, close by.
“What’s with them?”
A veil of darkness and heaviness descended over Song Ci’s eyes. He was beside himself when he said, “Master Rong, these people… these people might have turned out like this because of me.”
He could not help sucking in a cold breath as he said this. His entire mind was in a whirl. Negative emotions engulfed him mercilessly like an earthshaking tsunami.
These were all human lives!
If he knew that one wrong move of his would lead to so many deaths, he would never act without thinking and attempt to change the course of the upcoming calamity.
This was even more fatal than letting him experience that piercing pain himself. The thought that he had cost so many people their lives made him tremble in panic.
Rong Bai saw his fear and the emotions on full display on his face. He frowned slightly, thinking about something.
Song Ci was in torment as the lives of the people around him slipped away. It was as if he was dissolving in lava with nary a moment of peace.
“They won’t die.” Rong Bai suddenly said.
Song Ci raised his eyes and grabbed Rong Bai’s hand. He asked with urgency, “What did you say?”
“They won’t die.” Rong Bai repeated, although he did not give an explanation and reason. He merely stared at Song Ci.
Song Ci was stunned. He realized that everything around him was bizarre, especially the Rong Bai before him. This was like the Rong Bai he knew, and yet he was also the Rong Bai he did not recognize.
There was an imperceptible sense of familiarity about this person who had managed to reassure him with just one sentence.
What’s going on here? Where did he come from?
Just as he was staring, the chessboard began to turn again. The scene around Song Ci rippled like disturbed lake water and changed. Song Ci stood in a daze, pondering over a question.
Where is the real Rong Bai?
He was absorbed in his thoughts when the loud clang of a gong1 interrupted him. He moved and turned around. When he nudged his line of sight over, a full house of audience, the three feet high stage, and vermillion red curtains emerged in the initially empty surroundings, like a lifelike painting being rendered.
Servants pouring tea shuffled between seats. The intersecting apricot yellow lanterns in the hall emitted soft glow of colors that enveloped the great hall. The sounds of banter and laughter rang out incessantly.
This was the widely acclaimed San Chi Tai Theatre several decades ago.
“I heard it’s the debut of San Chi Tai’s new leading performer today.” Fragments of conversations drifted into his ears. Song Ci walked next to those people and leaned in to listen.
“There’s a servant in my residence. His younger brother works in the theater. He said that the new lead is as pretty as a flower. Anyone who lays their eyes on him would be moved by his beauty.”
“You have no idea. This Jiang lad came to Qinchuan a few years back. But he was still young then. All along, he has been studying the performing arts. The price of his first showing is certainly not cheap.”
Song Ci was momentarily lost when he heard this. Then, it dawned on him. The performers in these theaters were not much better than the courtesans in brothels. They could still be considered “elegant” while they were performing on stage. But once they stepped off the three feet stage, they would all be marked with a price.
But then, Jiang Liang was rather different from the others. Chosen as the theater’s leading performer, he was better trained in a variety of arts and was more highly skilled than the others. At the same time, he was also used as a gimmick to make a profit off patrons from all over the world.
Song Ci did not know whether to laugh or cry at this sordid trade. But he was also acutely aware that this was the rules of the world. No matter where he went, it was the same everywhere.
“Yo, gentlemen. This way inside—” The waiter’s warbling tone drew Song Ci’s attention away. He turned around and saw Feng Zhuojun lifting his robe to step through the door.
This was Feng Zhuojun after he had come of age.2 He was tall and wearing a jade crown as white as snow on his hair. There was a flirtatious smile on his handsome face, while his eyes were expressive.
He truly lived up to his reputation as the charming Young Master Feng in the City of Qinchuan whom everyone sang praises of.
He toyed with a folding fan and strolled towards the seat. A young servant followed behind him.
Song Ci heard the lad saying, “Young Master, don’t you dislike watching operas? You even said earlier that the person on stage was a man dressed as a woman, and he was very effeminate…”
Feng Zhuojun tsked. “I have nothing to do today. I just want to watch.”
“Madam is still waiting for us to return…”
“Shut up.” He ordered bluntly. Shifting in his seat, he changed his sitting position and looked up to check out the people in the hall. It was then he said, “Ask who is the dan3 on stage today.”
The lad dashed off to look for the waiter and asked him a few questions. When he returned, he looked happier. He said, “Young Master, it’s reportedly the debut performance of the theater’s leading performer. It’s the one you hate, Jiang Liang.”
Feng Zhuojun’s eyebrows moved. He did not look that surprised and merely uttered a sound of acknowledgment. Then he reached out to pick up a red date4 on the table before him and stuffed it into his mouth.
The lad looked anxious. “Young Master, why come to watch his show when you’re so annoyed with him? He is playing the dan today. He’s definitely dressed as a woman again. Let’s not dirty Young Master’s eyes. Why don’t we leave? Madam…”
Feng Zhuojun turned the handle of the fan and rapped the lad on the head with it. “Shut your trap and go stand at the back. Stay away from me. Come only when you see me beckoning to you.”
The lad pouted in aggrievement and ran to wait beside the door.
Song Ci stood beside Feng Zhuojun and watched as he threw the red dates into his mouth from time to time. There was no trace of impatience on his face as he waited quietly for the show to start.
Actually, Feng Zhuojun knows that the dan of this play is Jiang Liang, doesn’t he? Song Ci guessed.
He knew it, but he still came on purpose. This meant that he already had Jiang Liang in his heart at this point in time, regardless of the kind of feelings he had for him. He loathed men who dressed up as women. But the first time they met, the way Jiang Liang looked had already wormed its way into his heart. It was not something he could easily extract.
Song Ci stroked his chin and came to a conclusion: Feng Zhuojun has fallen for Jiang Liang.
But thinking about how he had indulged his wife as she bullied Jiang Liang later made it hard for Song Ci to change his opinion about him. Because his involvement with Jiang Liang had ruined Jiang Liang’s life.
Another clang of the gong reverberated inside the building. Someone yelled, “The show begins—!”
The buzz in the building quietened down by half. He heard the sound of erhu5 and Qiang flute6 before the melodious music reached his ears. Amidst this moving tune, a person slowly stepped forward to the center of the three feet stage.
The person’s black hair hung down to his waist, with a jade hairpin securing the delicate hairs on his temples. A long silk tail swayed behind a pink long skirt with an intense vermilion red below the hem, like the rouge on a bride’s lips. It was dazzling, and it was also the most prominent embellishment on the gown.
He took his own time to walk, and yet his movements stirred hearts. Even though he only revealed a side profile, they could still see the unparalleled poise and charm in it.
This was Jiang Liang, the child who once kneeled to an entire village to seek medical treatment, and the youth who told Feng Zhuojun point-blank that he was not a maiden.
Even Song Ci could not help but be moved by him.
锣 The Chinese gong is a musical percussion instrument that takes the form of a flat, circular metal disc which is hit with a mallet.
- 弱冠, a man’s 20th birthday, i.e. coming of age at 20 for a male.
- 旦角 dan, female roles in Chinese opera that are traditionally played by specialized male actors.
枣子 Chinese red dates are one of the most popular foods used for health in China. Chinese people treat dates as food, health tonic, and traditional herbs.
二胡 Erhu, a two-stringed bowed musical instrument.
羌笛 Qiang Flute, a vertical flute originating from the Qiang tribe. It is made of two bamboo pipes with holes on each side.