It was in silence that a penetratingly cold winter descended upon the capital city, where a blanket of snow after the snowstorm temporarily concealed an imminent turmoil.
Prime Minister Zhong, despite having power and authority, was plotting a rebellion. Folks in the city were on tenterhooks. It was at this critical juncture that the Emperor assigned Liang Bing, along with Song Ci, to investigate a corruption case.
Father and son rode in a horse carriage for half a month before they arrived at an average-sized city called the City of Wuyang. The city could still be said to be prosperous. Someone had reported to the higher authorities that the county magistrate had colluded with the squire from the city to increase taxes without authorization while reducing the reported amount collected by half.
This was initially not a big deal, but this squire of Wuyang was born a bandit, and he had, in his own territory, audaciously sent someone to rob and silence the key witness who had made the report.
After the key witness was murdered, the corruption case reached an impasse, and Song Ci was kept on the go. Those witnesses who were previously willing to testify suddenly avoided him, and those commoners who had identified the squire and the magistrate also changed their testimonies.
In a moment of desperation, Liang Bing sent his men to forcibly search all the assets under the magistrate’s name. He even went to the extent of searching their residences for ill-gotten gains to confiscate. This action pushed the squire and the magistrate into the corner, and both men conspired to kill Liang Bing to end the matter once and for all. Song Ci happened to be outdoors investigating the case, and so he escaped a calamity, but Liang Bing was wounded in a moment of carelessness. Fortunately, the guards arrived to save his life in time.
Shocked and furious, Song Ci sent his men to take down the magistrate’s and squire’s residences and ordered them to be thrown in jail for the crime of conspiring to murder an imperial court official. Without both parties to pressurize them, the commoners finally spoke the truth. And thus, the corruption case was solved.
Afraid that Liang Bing might not be able to take the bumpy ride back, Song Ci insisted on waiting for Liang Bing to be out of danger before returning to the capital. But Liang Bing was of advanced age after all. Even though his condition improved, the long journey back to the capital caused his condition to deteriorate again to the point his life hung in the balance.
Madam Liang had already received the news, but when she saw Liang Bing being carried into the residence, she still could not not help but slap Song Ci right on the spot.
Song Ci had not protected his father. He was aware of what he had done wrong, and so he sincerely admitted his mistake and kneeled to plead with Madam Liang to chastise and punish him. It was Liang Bing who, despite being critically ill, stopped Madam Liang from doing so.
After returning to the capital, Song Ci busied himself with bringing the corruption case to a close and submitting his report to the Emperor. For a few days, he left home early and returned home late, taking only a quick look at Liang Bing every day. This incurred even more displeasure from Madam Liang. Several times during this period, Liang Bing’s condition grew so critical that he had even prepared his last words and will.
The last time it happened, he nearly kicked the bucket. On receiving the news, Song Ci hurried back. He was reeking of wine, and Madam Liang flew into a rage. She pointed at Song Ci and said, “How dare you still have the cheek to return?! You caused your father to end up in this state. You should be kneeling at the entrance for three days and three nights to apologize and beg for forgiveness!”
Song Ci lowered his head. He did not retort as he turned around to leave, but Madam Liang was not willing to drop the matter. She flung all the objects beside her at him and cursed. “You are a jinx! After jinxing your younger brother to death, you are now jinxing your father! Why did I give birth to a jinx like you?!”
The teacups and teapot went smashing into Song Ci, and the scalding water that had splashed over his body made him cower involuntarily. Yet, his heart was cold. He looked back at Madam Liang in disbelief and repeated in a trembling voice, “I’m a jinx?”
Although he thought that other bystanders might have thought this way, he had never expected his own mother to think so too. He thought that his mother had already gradually grown to forgive him after more than ten years. He had never imagined it to be still the same.
It seemed that his mother’s resentment had never abated.
“When your younger brother could speak at two years old, he could already recite the Three Character Classic.1 He could remember everything he read or wrote. He’s the reincarnation of the Star of Wenqu2 from Heaven! He had such a bright future, but he lost his life all because of you!” In her anger, Madam Liang shot her mouth off. It was as if she was trying every means to hurt Song Ci. “And now your father has one foot in the grave because of you! Yet you spend your time drinking and having a good time outside, and you are nowhere to be seen for days in a row. What an unfilial son. I’ll beat you to death!”
She pounded on Song Ci like a madwoman. Every slap that landed put Song Ci in intolerable agony. He let Madam Liang vent her anger, never once dodging or evading her.
“That’s enough! That’s enough!” The commotion startled Liang Bing awake. He shouted in a hoarse voice, “Why are you blaming Ci-er?! He has done well enough! After all these years, haven’t you gotten enough of making trouble? “
Song Ci’s eyes were red as he choked back his tears and enunciated each word to Madam Liang, “Since Mother thinks I was the one who jinxed my younger brother to death, then from today onwards, I’ll leave home to be a monk and chant sutras day and night for my younger brother to atone for my sins.”
With that, he stepped out of the door without looking back, only to hear Liang Bing shouting himself hoarse. “Ci-er!”
Those in the residence did not know what had happened, and they did not dare to stop Song Ci either. By the time a somewhat wretched Madam Liang chased after him out of the door, there were no longer any traces left of Song Ci.
It was all ice and snow outside, and the freezing wind was howling. Song Ci had not even draped a cloak over him. All he was wearing was a soaked cotton robe. The bitingly cold wind huffed and puffed at him, as if making its way into his chest to encase his warm heart in icy frost. It hurt so much that tears streamed down his cheeks.
Song Ci thought, I really have had enough!
Over ten years of putting up with it. And over ten years of guilt. Liang Shuli’s death was like an iron chain clutching his neck every single moment. He had no choice back then, so why were they always pinning the blame on him?!
At the outskirts of the capital, there was a famous imperial temple by the name of Yanxiang Temple. Song Ci made a beeline for that temple, vowing to shave off all his hair to free himself of his troubles.
It was with some difficulty that he climbed his way to Yanxiang Temple in the embrace of the snowstorm, only to sense something bizarre about the place.
Heavy snow had cut off access paths, and no one would offer incense at this time. But even so, Yanxiang temple was so quiet that it was odd. The gates were tightly shut, and there were no monks guarding the entrance. Song Ci wondered if Yanxiang Temple would be closed for these few days.
He wiped away his tears and knocked on the door. The door opened up a small crack, as if moving in response to his knock. Song Ci pushed the door wide open to enter. After making his way through two archways, he realized that there was really no one in the temple. It was as if everyone had left en masse.
But since there was no one around, then who opened the door for him?
Cold sweat ran down Song Ci’s back. He trod lightly. All thoughts of becoming a monk had been temporarily quashed. He could not wait to leave this weird place as soon as possible.
“Benefactor, since you are already here, then why be in such a hurry to leave?” A voice suddenly rang out behind him. Song Ci turned his head around in panic and saw a young master standing behind him.
He was all dressed in brocade clothes. Obviously, he was not a monk from the temple, but his smile was gentle, and he did not reek of danger. .
Song Ci said, “I didn’t see anyone in the temple, so I was planning to come again another day.”
“The masters in the temple have all gone to the backyard. They have asked me to remain here to welcome visitors. If Benefactor doesn’t mind the trouble, I can lead you to the backyard to look for them.” The young master replied courteously.
Song Ci was not in the slightest wary as he nodded to him, “Alright.”
The young master walked ahead to lead him to the backyard.
There was an enormous Chinese Yew tree in the backyard of Yanxiang Temple. Song Ci did not know how long it had been planted there, but it was a towering tree. And it was completely empty underneath. There were none of the people the young master had mentioned. Realizing that he might have been deceived, Song Ci asked with some displeasure, “Where are they? Didn’t you say they were all in the backyard?”
“They are in the backyard.” The young master pointed smilingly to the Chinese Yew tree, “Look over there.”
Song Ci cast a dubious look over and saw the tree suddenly move as if it had come alive. The old bark split apart, and greenish human faces with tightly closed eyes abruptly materialized.
It was the first time Song Ci had seen such a horrifying scene, and his legs immediately went weak from the fright. He looked at that young master in horror. “You…”
The young master let out a sinister smile. With a sudden wave of his hand, a long branch extended from the tree and came assailing towards Song Ci. Flustered, Song Ci took several steps back, but there was no way he could avoid it. The branch pierced through his abdomen and sucked his blood as though it was a mouth. It dragged him to the tree and wrapped itself around him to fuse him into the tree until only his face was exposed.
All Song Ci could feel was the stabbing pain in his abdomen which penetrated all the way to his heart. He wanted to shout, but it was as if he was being strangled by the throat. His entire body was so tightly bound that he could not budge. Even as his blood drained away, something else seemed to be transferred into him from the tree, maintaining his life.
Song Ci was trapped in the tree from noon to dusk. His breathing had grown weak, and his eyes were closed. He teetered on the brink of death. Yet, the power from the tree branch sustained him.
His instinctive fear of death led him to regret it immensely.
At first, he wondered if he would still be dragging out an ignoble existence in his world if he had not gotten angry with his mother. There were many ways in which he could get away from the kind of predicament he faced in the Liang Clan, and each of these ways was all much better than being trapped in this tree and dying a slow death.
Then, he thought about how old his father and mother already were. They have had the experience of seeing their child die before them once. And now, it was going to happen again. He did not know if they could withstand this blow. What’s more, he was the only child and heir they had left in the family. With his death, the Liang Clan’s shu line of descendants3 would be completely severed.
He wondered if anyone would curse him in the Underworld.
Or perhaps Liang Shuli was still nursing a grievance in his heart. What if he had been unwilling to go for his reincarnation in the Underworld and was waiting for Song Ci down there to give him a beating?
Eventually, Song Ci no longer had the strength to be resentful or afraid. His consciousness dimmed, and his complexion turned grayish-blue. He was becoming more and more like the others in the tree.
Right at the time he was about to have both feet in the grave, a pair of hands suddenly hauled him out from the tree. A gush of incredible power made its way into his body and gave him the last breath of life he needed to sustain himself.
Song Ci struggled to lift his heavy eyelids. He saw a man in an apricot-yellow robe squatting before him and looking at him as though he was sizing him up. His eyes were clear and pure. He spoke slowly, “Song Ci?”
Song Ci reached a hand out to grab hold of the hem of the man’s clothes. “Save me…”
The man backhandedly took out a crimson red fruit and sent it to the side of Song Ci’s mouth, “Want a bite?”
“Thank you. But I’m not thirsty.” Song Ci said. “Save me…”
The golden-eyed man laughed. “This can save your life. But you will have to pay a price.”
Song Ci was weak and feeble. When he heard that this fruit could save his life, he gave it no further thought and opened his mouth to bite down on it. But the man pulled back, causing him to chomp down on empty air.
Song Ci was feeling anxious when he felt the man tap on his forehead. Golden light flowed from the man’s finger into the center of his forehead. It instantly dispelled the fog in Song Ci’s mind, making him so sober and clear-minded at that moment that he could even feel the passing of his life.
“You have to think about it carefully. Once you eat this fruit, you will become a demon. You can never assimilate back into the mortal world to fulfill your filial duty to your parents. You will even have to lead a vagrant life and suffer untold hardships because of this. More importantly…”
The man’s unhurried voice rang in his ears. He tapped between Song Ci’s eyebrows again, and an unfamiliar figure instantly materialized in his mind.
This man had long snow-white hair and a pair of erected fox ears. Nine furry, fluffy tails extended behind his dazzling golden robe like a blooming flower. Blue eyes with traces of a warm smile looked at him from a distance away.
“Your future life will be closely intertwined with this person. If you can accept this, then you can get a new lease of life once you consume this fruit.”
In that instant, Song Ci gave the matter a lot of thought.
Taking this fruit was equivalent to abandoning everything he had except for his life. But if he gave this fruit up, then that would be the same as giving up all he had, including this life.
Images of scenes from the past came to his mind. Liang Shuli’s death. Madam Liang’s cold treatment. Everyone’s malicious gossip behind his back. All the injustices he had endured all these years.
It finally stopped upon the handsome man with the warm smile. He decisively held out his hand to take that demonic fruit. As he took the first bite, tears slid down the corners of his eyes, as if to announce the severance of all his past ties.
Or perhaps, this was the start of all ties.
The golden-eyed man smiled lazily at him. “Welcome back, Song Ci.”
Yan Song has won the “Quietly Achieving Great Things” award.
This award is exclusively sponsored by Feng Meili.4
The young master in the temple is a villain from the Ninth Highness’s novel.5 But he’s just an extra in this story~
- 三字经 Three Character Classic (San Zi Jing) is one of the many classic Chinese texts used to teach basic literacy to young children in the past. It encompasses the basis of Confucian morality, especially filial piety and respecting the elders.
- 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.
- Children in those days were classified according to whether they were a lawful or common child. A son of lawful birth (嫡子) was born by the legal first wife (this was the wife who has been officially married into the family, also known as a zhengshi (正室)). Being the eldest of the legal wife made him the legitimate heir. They also had a higher social status and often received better treatment compared to the son of common births (庶子) born by concubines.
To recap on Song Ci’s lineage:
Liang Jun (a son of lawful birth born by the legitimate wife) > Liang Yanbei ( born by Liang Jun’s legitimate wife) = Direct (and legitimate) line of descendants.
Liang Bing (a son of common birth 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.
- Author refers to herself as Feng Meili. Meili (美丽) means beautiful.
《九殿下请更衣》 Literally translated as “Your Ninth Royal Highness, Please Change Your Clothes.” is the author’s older BL novel featuring Liang Yanbei x Wen Chan. [Link]