That happened at an age where a young man would have yet to experience the world; Song Ci had just celebrated his sixteenth birthday.
The maiden was the fourth child in the family. Her name was Tao Rui, and her pet name was Wei-er.
The Tao Clan was considered a well-established family in Jinling. They were originally merchants, but they later bought an official post.1 Even so, the man at home had not been born of a literary clan. If he wasn’t interested in martial arts, he would be out making mischief. As such, he did not make it big despite having bought a title; he was merely just hanging in there and getting by.
Tao Rui was a legitimate daughter of lawful birth.2 She was a delicate and pampered maiden, but her betrothal to Song Ci was still a case of social climbing.
The Liang Clan was both a family of merchants and officials. They had been enjoying a life of affluence and luxury for many years, and it was not a clan the average household could compare itself to. Liang Bing was the eldest son of Liang Clan, but he was a son of common birth born by a concubine. So although Song Ci was his legitimate son of lawful birth, others still label him a common child compared to Liang Yanbei, who was a legitimate child of direct descent.3
The Liang Clan themselves did not put that much importance on the distinction between those of lawful birth and common birth. Liang Bing and his younger brother, Liang Jun, had a very close relationship. Even though the brothers went on to have their own families, they would still frequently keep in touch and visit each other. It was the bystanders who segregated them based on whether they were of lawful or common birth.
Song Ci had heard too much of this distinction ever since he was young.
He had never argued with the others on this. Even if they brought it up, he would either avoid it or ignore it. Even so, he still felt a little uncomfortable deep down.
When he was fifteen years old, Tao Rui, all dressed in pink, stood in front of him and bared her fangs at those in the school who were gossiping about him on the sly. “Young Master Liang is also a legitimate son of the Liang Clan. How could you say he’s of common birth?!”
This retort left a mark in little Song Ci’s heart. What she said was right. He was indeed of legitimate birth. It was only because of Liang Yanbei that others would always point him out as the non-legitimate one.
His parents had both instructed him to ignore such gossip. He knew his place, and never refuted those people. But he was still young after all, so how could he put up with it again and again? This maiden in pink did what he had never dared to do.
And added a ray of light to his overcast sky.
Song Ci had always been docile and meek to his parents and buddies. But he was still young, and it was impossible for him to have only a gentle side to him. There was no way to vent his fury and discontent, so he had to force himself to suppress these feelings every single time. When Tao Rui leaped out to say these words, Song Ci instantly had the impulse to shed tears.
Later, Song Ci made some inquiries about her name and deliberately attempted to get close to her. Because he made no attempts to disguise his actions, rumors began to spread among most of the folks in Jinling that he had taken a shine to the Fourth Missy of the Tao Clan.
So it was only to be expected when Madam Liang went to drop in on them to propose marriage.4 Flattered and honored, the Tao Clan hurriedly agreed to the betrothal. From that day onwards, Song Ci openly treated Tao Rui well. He had no sisters, and it was the first time he put all his efforts into winning a maiden’s heart. So whenever he saw something fun or pretty on the streets, he would feel like buying them for her.
But Tao Rui did not like it. The first few times, she could still put on an act to say her thanks and accept them. Eventually, she just threw him an impatient look.
Song Ci did not have any experience with this at all. When he saw Tao Rui unhappy, he could only cluelessly try to think of ways to coax her and make her happy.
The things he possessed were way too little. Afraid of losing them, he treasured them even more.
But even though Song Ci cherished her this much, Tao Rui still personally called on them to annul the betrothal. She stood in front of the Liang Clan’s entrance, and when a delighted Song Ci came out, she said mercilessly, “I want to nullify our betrothal.”
Song Ci’s smile froze then. He was embarrassed and afraid as he looked at the people coming and going to watch the show. He did not even dare to ask why. All he did was to force a smile. “We still need our parents to decide on this matter.”
“My father and my mother don’t agree, but I don’t want to marry you, so I came here myself to tell you.” Tao Rui went straight to the point. She had been so spoiled that she feared nothing.
Song Ci panicked. “Wei-er-meimei, was it because I made you angry earlier? I’ve let you down…”
“That’s not it!” Tao Rui cut him off impatiently, “I admire Liang Yanbei. He is a man of great talents and martial prowess, while you have neither. You are such a far cry from him.”
Song Ci was stunned; he did not expect her to say this. He wanted to open his mouth and retort that Liang Yanbei could not even tell Confucius from Mencius,5 but before he could voice it out, Tao Rui’s expression forced his words back.
Her expression was almost one of cruel mockery. “You’re merely a son of common birth in the Liang Clan. Even if I were to be Liang Yanbei’s concubine, it would still be far better than marrying you.”
In just a while, her words shattered Song Ci’s desire to refute and retain her. His eyes clouded over, and his fingers involuntarily started to tremble. Even when Tao Rui heartlessly took her leave, he stood where he was for a long time. He would not budge an inch when the servants came to persuade him, or even when the people coming and going all mocked him.
In the end, Liang Bing got news of this incident and hurriedly bid Liang Jun farewell at the wine tavern. At the entrance of the residence, he put his arm around Song Ci’s shoulder and led him back home.
Liang Bing did not know how to comfort his son. He was miffed, and his heart ached. He could only pat him on the shoulder. Somehow, this pulled a shred of Song Ci’s consciousness back from the boundless fog he was in.
When he raised his eyes, he caught Madam Liang’s eyes. She stood in the corner of the courtyard and looked at Song Ci from afar with an indiscernible emotion in her eyes. Song Ci suddenly felt cold all over.
After so many years, Song Ci thought that he had already let go of this incident. Yet, his heart still hurt when he saw this replayed all over again. It was as if he felt even more terrible than he had as a youth. In this realistic, vivid illusion, he seemed to have seen even more emotions that came not only from the others but also his own.
All he remembered afterward was that Liang Bing took him along when he returned to the capital. That was only when he broke away from all those fingers the people in Jinling were pointing at him. It was also from that year onwards that his attitude towards Liang Yanbei changed.
Outsiders always thought that he was narrow-minded to be jealous and resentful of the legitimately born Liang Yanbei. He had put up with these groundless accusations for too long. He always felt wronged every time he heard them. But after this incident, he decided that he might as well make it real and tell others of Liang Yanbei’s misdoings that he had fabricated. That way, he would no longer feel aggrieved whenever someone brought it up.
That was a childish move he did not say much about. But then he got used to it, and eventually he came to believe that he was genuinely sick of Liang Yanbei.
Song Ci’s memory was not really that good. When these memories he deliberately chose to forget reappeared before him, the feelings it gave him still felt so raw and clear. He stood only three steps away from the youth Song Ci and looked at his indescribable expression after his eyes met Madam Liang’s. He did not dare to feel aggrieved or to voice his grievances, because he had no right to.
But still, he could not accept his own mother looking on coldly when he was broken-hearted. That hurt him way too much.
Negative emotions crashed into him with the force of an avalanche, almost engulfing him. Song Ci gasped and tried to suppress them, but he could not stop the faint, red marks from slowly creeping up the sides of his face. The blue in his eyes flickered like flames and burned away the only reason he had left.
Song Ci came to the entrance of the Tao Clan. A fire burned from the gate all the way to the backyard. He strolled amidst the blue flames as wretched screams filled his ears. With patience and conscientiousness, he found Tao Rui, who was still a maiden.
Song Ci grabbed her by the neck and lifted her. He looked at her hideous, suffocating face, and the elation of getting back at her flooded his heart.
He heard his own voice rang out in his ear. “Well done. Anyone who hurts you deserves to die.”
The moment the words fell, Song Ci pierced Tao Rui’s chest and ended her in one clean move.
After casting aside Tao Rui’s lifeless body on the ground, Song Ci did not feel the sense of comfort of having taken his revenge. Two intense emotions collided in his heart. One was the fear and guilt of having killed innocent people, while the other was the satisfaction of having upheld justice for himself.
The turmoil between these two emotions gave him a splitting headache. He fell on his butt in agony and clenched his head, wanting to force those emotions out, but a cry interrupted him.
“Mother! Save me! “This childlike cry was the prologue to the nightmare that would haunt him for life.
Fear overwhelmed Song Ci the moment he heard this. He hardly dared to look up, but the cry rang right beside his ears, forcing him to look.
Before him was a mountain forest. It was currently summer, the season of lush plant growth. The night enveloped the entire mountain. It was so dark that there was not even a ray of moonlight. Instead, there was a band of vicious brigands holding up their torches for illumination.
Madam Liang was tied to a nearby tree. There was a bruise on her forehead. She had always appeared poised with her makeup exquisitely done, but now she cut a sorry figure. Her hair was a mess, and the extravagant vermilion hairpins in her hair had all been removed. Amid the waves of cries, she regained consciousness.
The cries came from a little boy whose hands and legs were bound. He cried incessantly. His fearful face bore some resemblance to Song Ci.
It was when Song Ci looked at that face that a bloody scar was gouged out from the deepest recess in his memory—That was his younger brother, Liang Shuli.
Song Ci was only ten years old that year. The brigands had kidnapped Madam Liang, who had brought Song Ci and his younger brother back to her maternal home6 for a visit. The brigands then sent a ransom note to the Liang Clan—Pay to redeem them.
Liang Bing was still in the capital at that time, and the only Liang in Jinling was Liang Jun. When he received the note, he brought some people with him to rescue them as quickly as he possibly could. But when he finally arrived, Liang Shuli was no longer breathing.
Time and time again, Song Ci forced himself to forget the scene of Liang Shuli dying. But all it took was just a little nudge to send his efforts crumbling.
The brigands were all demented lunatics. While waiting for the ransom, they used Song Ci and Liang Shuli as entertainment. They made Song Ci stand before a trap, which was used for hunting and killing wild beasts in the mountain. It was a deep and large pit with incomparably sharp iron bars erected all over the bottom of the pit. Even a huge, wild bear could only end up punctured with holes if it were to fall into the pit.
The brigands laid out several wooden planks over the trap with gaps in between. They pointed at the wooden planks and said, “Jump across the planks to the other side, or we’ll beat your brother to death.”
Song Ci stood before the wooden planks with uncontrollably trembling legs. He cast a look at Liang Shuli under the feet of the brigands and kept wiping away the tears that had fallen out of fear.
“Jump!” A brigand barked at him and gave Liang Shuli a merciless kick on his body. Liang Shuli was only eight years old, and his tiny body could not withstand such a blow. He immediately let out a scream.
On seeing this, Madam Liang struggled like mad. “Don’t hit my son! Don’t!”
The brigand picked up a rod and said to Song Ci, “All you have to do is to jump across once. Otherwise, I’ll hit him.”
Song Ci cried even harder.
Madam Liang, however, seemed to have lost her mind as she coaxed Song Ci, “Ci-er, just jump. One time will do. You must save your younger brother!”
Song Ci was terrified. He looked down and saw the first board visibly bent with signs of splintering. It looked as if it could not even support the weight of a rabbit. If he really jumped onto it, he would undoubtedly plummet into the trap right there and then.
Song Ci cried out to Madam Liang, “Mother, this plank is broken!”
The brigand burst out laughing nastily on hearing it and said in a voice that sounded as though it came from hell, “Lad, your eyesight is pretty good.”
As soon as he finished speaking, he began to hit Liang Shuli with the rod. It was as if he enjoyed inflicting violence. The more miserably Liang Shuli cried, the more excited he was. The sound of pounding on flesh was incredibly jarring to the ears.
Liang Shuli curled up into a ball and screamed instinctively. His shrill voice reverberated through the entire mountain.
Madam Liang went insane as she cried out hysterically, “Stop hitting him! Don’t hit him! I beg you to stop it! Swap the brothers around. Just don’t beat up Li-er!”
In that very instant, Song Ci’s mind went blank. He looked at Madam Liang. His blurry vision through those teary eyes cleared up. The mother that had borne him and raised him looked malevolent right that moment. It was as if she was a stranger he had never seen before.
She bellowed at Song Ci, “Jump! Hurry and jump!”
Song Ci felt paralyzed all over. He trembled and pointed to the plank as though he was putting up a last-ditch struggle in his despair. “This plank… is broken.”
Madam Liang did not hear his words at all. Her cries interweaved with Liang Shuli’s screams, along with the brigands’ laughter, to turn into a deadly dirge, a barbed sword.
The excruciating pain of the wound as it stabbed right into his heart made him wish he was dead. Yet even after it was pulled out, it still inflicted torture upon him blade after blade.7
Song Ci could not breathe; it was as if he was being strangled by the throat. He looked on as his ten-year-old self covered his ears and squatted by the side of the trap despite Madam Liang’s repeated screams for him to jump and the weakening cries of Liang Shuli.
He looked as though he wanted to curl up and cower into the mud.
He only had one thought back then—He wanted to live. He did not want to be pierced by those iron stakes below.
This cowardly thought, which made him cower, and this instinct to survive, killed his one and only brother.
The brigand brutally beat Liang Shuli to death right before Madam Liang’s and Song Ci’s eyes. The rod was slick with bright red blood. Yet, the brigand simply sat there peacefully drinking his wine. With a smile, he complimented Song Ci, “You are sure to have a promising future.”
Later, Liang Jun hurried his way there on horseback and killed the brigands to release Madam Liang. As soon as she was released, she rolled and crawled her way to Liang Shuli’s side. When she picked him up, his body was already cold. Blood oozing from his mouth, eyes, and nose drenched his entire face.
The sight of a person being beaten to death alive was horrifying. And the still cowering Song Ci did not dare to show his head.
Liang Yanbei, who was only eight years old at that time and had stubbornly insisted on tagging along, was the first to stand beside him. He gave the sobbing Song Ci a hug and murmured, “Elder Cousin Brother, don’t cry. We’ve come to save you.”
Before he could finish his words, Madam Liang, who realized Liang Shuli had died, went deranged with grief. She picked up the rod the brigand had used earlier to beat Liang Shuli to death to hit Song Ci on his head. Liang Yanbei tried to protect him and ended up receiving two blows. On seeing this, Liang Jun hurried over in a fluster to stop her.
In the end, Madam Liang could not be pacified. So Song Ci was taken over to Liang Yanbei’s residence to stay overnight for a few nights. It was only when they learned that Liang Bing had rushed back from the capital that he was taken back home.
Song Ci did not know what Madam Liang had told Liang Bing. Although Liang Bing did not blame Song Ci, the way he looked at him felt veiledly distant.
Actually, Song Ci knew that his parents doted on his younger brother more. At the age of ten, Song Ci was mischievous and hard to teach. He did not like to study his books or practice his writings. Instead, he liked to take Liang Yanbei with him to create mischief everywhere.
In contrast, Liang Shuli was a quiet and sensible child at eight. At such a tender age, he had already read thousands of books. He never created a ruckus or caused trouble. A Daoist priest once said that he was the reincarnation of the Star of Wenqu.8 At just fifteen years old, he would be able to obtain the title of the top scholar.
His younger brother, who was the reincarnation of the Star of Wenqu, died tragically at eight, while he, who was a trouble-maker, survived and took the place of Liang Shuli for the rest of his remaining life.
This was probably the result no one wanted to see. Everyone all felt regretful whenever this matter was brought up.
After that incident, Song Ci never ran around to stir up trouble again. He kept away his lively, active nature and took on the persona of a docile, courteous, and refined child. He became the second Liang Shuli.
By the time Madam Liang began to show motherly love to him again a long time later, the spirited, playful Song Ci of the past had already been obliterated.
Compared to others, he was never the chosen one.
In fact, he had once, for a fleeting moment, yearned to be a person who was important or even needed. But wishful thinking was, after all, wishful thinking.
These memories were like sharp claws brutally ripping apart the most tender spot in his heart, adding yet another wound over that scarred, battered place.
Song Ci shut his eyes in agony and gave free rein to those wounds as they hurt him again and again. It was as if he had already grown exhausted from his struggle to protect himself.
“You are such a failure, Liang Shuhong.” Situ Zhoulan’s voice rang out at this moment, “You aren’t worthy to live in this world. You remained unmoved as you watched your younger brother beaten to death. You are a devil wearing the skin of a human. You don’t deserve to be at peace.”
Song Ci conceded. It was indeed the case. That was the pit he would be stepping over forever.
“You are always the abandoned one. Why don’t you stop to think about the reason? Wen Chan did not choose you. Tao Rui did not choose you. Even your mother wanted you to die in place of Liang Shuli. It wasn’t their fault. It’s yours alone.”
Song Ci seemed to have lost all strength to refute. He could not find a single reason to either.
He was always thinking of using nonchalance to camouflage the wounds in his heart. After sloppily applying ineffective herbs on the wounds, he could, in trying to deceive himself, tell himself, it’s fine. I’m not hurt at all.
No one would be able to tell. He even fooled himself.
Being flat out exposed like this not only threw Song Ci into anguish, it also gave him a sense of release.
The red marks on his face lightened until it soundlessly faded away. Pure blue washed over his ink-black eyes.
Situ Zhoulan breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Alright, the fusing of blood is done. Having also lost his will to fight, he’s now at your mercy.”
Tu Shan Lian smiled in satisfaction. Without saying a word, she jumped before Song Ci and looked at his crestfallen, anguished face with both eyes shut. She raised her right hand and transformed it into claws before pointing it at his chest.
Song Ci seemed to sense her movement, but he had no desire to move.
Right at this time, someone spoke hypnotizingly into his ear, “What wrong have you done? You merely wanted to live. You just wanted to cherish, to possess. Where is the wrong in that?”
That’s right, what has he done wrong?
All he wanted was to live well. To live like Liang Shuli, loved by his parents. To live like Liang Yanbei, happy and free. To live like Wen Chan, laidback and at peace.
He did nothing wrong. So why did he have to suffer all these?
All the buried and pent-up anger and hatred finally broke through the earth to wind around every corner of his heart. It turned into a dot of scarlet between his brows. Just as Tu Shan Lian’s fingernails were about to pierce through his chest, he suddenly reached out to grab hold of her wrist.
When he opened his eyes again, those blue eyes were brimming with malevolence and a bloody desire to kill. He looked right at Tu Shan Lian and said in a voice that not only contained a hint of a smile, but also the intent to kill, “What are you doing?”
Would like to clarify that Wen Chan was not in the wrong, and neither was Liang Yanbei or even Song Ci. They were all merely standing from different standpoints. Besides, the dream realm itself imposed all these negative emotions on Song Ci.
- 买官 sometimes the rich buy a title or official post from corrupted officials so that they (or their sons) get to be an official without going through and passing the imperial examinations.
- Children in those days were classified according to whether they were a child born to the principal wife or concubines. A lawful son was born by the legal wife (this was the wife who has been officially married into the family, also known as the principal wife). Being the eldest of the legal wife made him the legitimate heir. They also had higher social status and often received better treatment compared to the other common sons born by concubines. It’s recommended to keep this in mind, as this will be a recurring theme in the novel.
- To put it succinctly:
Liang Jun (a lawful son born by the legitimate wife) > Liang Yanbei ( born by Liang Jun’s legitimate wife) = Direct (and legitimate) line of descendants.
Liang Bing (a common son born by a concubine or mistress) > Song Ci (born by Liang Bing’s legitimate wife) = Non-direct line since Liang Bing is not born by the legitimate wife.
Societal norms would suggest that Liang Bing (and by extension, Song Ci) would have a lower social status compared to Liang Jun and Liang Yanbei.
- In those days, parents typically make arrangements for their children’s marriage. The rich ones would usually find someone well-matched in status and send a matchmaker to the other family to propose marriage. Most children usually don’t have a say in who they get to marry (as in Tao Rui’s case).
- 孔子 Kongzi, or Confucius (551-479 BC), a Chinese thinker and social philosopher, whose ideas have influenced the civilization of East Asia.
孟子 Mengzi, or Mencius (c. 372-c. 289 BC), a Confucian philosopher who is described as the “Second Sage” after Confucius.
- 娘家 The house of a married woman’s parents; also her old home before she got married. It was customary for a maiden to live with her parents until she got married, which was when she would move to her husband’s house to live with him and his family.
- 凌迟 Lingchi, also known as slow slicing or death by a thousand cuts, was a form of slow torture and drawn-out execution used in ancient China for those guilty of serious crimes such as treason. Flesh was cut off piece by piece until the condemned died.
- Zi Wei Dou Shu (紫微斗数) is a branch of astrology and a form of fortune-telling in Chinese culture. Chinese myths and legends regard the Star of Wenqu (文曲星; also one of the six lucky stars) as the star responsible for literary luck and examinations. Most of those with literary talents serving as top officials in the imperial court are often referred to as the incarnation (or reincarnation) of the Star of Wenqu.