That day, I was unable to hold it back anymore. To Xie Mingjun, I said those words.
He was drinking tea, his slender fingers arranged concisely over the blue-and-white porcelain teacup. His arm paused in the air. He lifted his head, his brows raised, and faintly smiled: “A-Lin, I thought you were smart.”
The March sunlight filtered in through the open window. I lowered my head and looked at my hand, which I had placed over my knee, and noticed how pale and cold it looked. At night, Xie Mingjun’s fingers would always be entangled with mine, the dim yellow candlelight casting shadows of our entwined hands over the silken bed sheets.
Dazed, I stood up. “I’ll be leaving, then.”
He lifted the teacup to his lips, taking a slow sip, as if he had not heard my words.
I holed myself in my small courtyard, scared out of my wits. Xie Mingjun was a talent unparalleled under the heavens. I had delusionally attempted to obtain a promise from him, but I had been too greedy in my efforts.
The evening of the third day, someone knocked on my courtyard door. Before I could even stand up, I felt a chilly aura envelop me.
He was wearing a plain black robe. His eyes were bright and clear, and the corners of his lips were raised into a faint smile.
I stayed rigidly in my original position, half wondering if this was a dream. Xie Mingjun walked inside, filling the room with his familiar temperature. The lanterns flickered into darkness. The faint scent of wine escaped from his open lips.
Just like before, before he had even opened his mouth to speak, he was drunk.
Returning to sobriety was a thing of the past. I tilted my head, watching Xie Mingjun step into the pool of moonlight in front of the bed. His robes were scattered carelessly over his shoulders.
Afterwards, he turned his head to look at me, a unhurried smile still on his face. As if mocking me, he said, “You say that you’ve loved me for very long. Now, it’s time for me to see if those words are true.”
A millennium snow lotus. A black jade pearl. A gu¹ centipede. A seven-leaf ginseng.
Xie Mingjun said, “You can buy them, beg for them, or even steal them. As long as you can acquire these four items for me, I will truly believe that you love me.”
I smiled bitterly. “If you want me to untangle my fate from yours forever, there’s no need to go this far.”
He didn’t dispute my words. Instead, he pulled out an object from his bosom and threw it in my direction. I reached out my hand and caught it, realizing that it was an exquisitely carved jade tablet.
“If you ever find yourself struggling with anything, you can use this tablet to seek help using my name. If you bring those four objects back, I will agree to love you for a lifetime.”
He prepared to leave, then suddenly turned back and laughed. “But remember to return back alive. Otherwise, how can I fulfill this appointment?”
At that time, he was facing against the light, his smile limpid. His eyes seemed to be filled with radiance.
Thus, I willingly took part in this grand gamble.
I wandered three years in the northwest, two years in central China, and another two years in the southwestern regions bordering the South China Sea².
I had been born with an innate condition that left me unable to cultivate. As I searched through the land, I encountered countless difficulties and danger. However, his words repeated incessantly through my mind: remember to return back alive.
There had been periods throughout where I had thought of giving up halfway, or using the jade tablet he had given me to look for information. However, every time I reached into my robes to grab that tablet pressed intimately against my skin, I would always retract my hands.
If he wanted proof of my sincerity, then I would accomplish this task using only my own strength.
When I finally returned, travel-worn, to the central plains, many things remained the same. But other things had changed.
The store in the capital was the place where I had first encountered him. It had been one white robe, one quick glance backwards, one cheerful conversation, that sentenced us to our eternal damnation.
There were people who recognized the jade plate I held. I was quickly ushered into the back hall of the store. However, the person who appeared to greet me wasn’t him.
I recognized the person. It was the manager of the store in the capital, as well as the good friend of Xie Mingjun’s childhood sweetheart.
There were few words exchanged between us. He carefully opened the package on a large table. A millennium snow lotus. A black jade pearl. A gu centipede. A seven-leaf ginseng.
Seeing these items splayed out on the table, that person’s expression changed. He sighed, murmuring, “It really is that same as what he said…”
“The same as what?” I asked, a bad premonition rising inside my heart.
He carefully examined the four objects I gave him, then remained still for a long period time.
Finally, he raised his head to look at me. Slowly, he said, “Xie Mingjun has been dead for five years.”
“It was an congenital heart condition, something that no medicine could cure.”
I turned my gaze to the objects lying on the table in front of me. He turned his head to look, too, continuing, “These four items combined are a medicinal recipe. What it cures is not a heart condition, but,” he paused, looking at me. Then, one word at a time, he slowly said, “obstruction of the meridians, and qi deficiency.”
He took out the jade tablet that had been pressed intimately against my skin for seven years, placing it onto the table. He could only sigh again. “He said that your nature was obstinate and unyielding, always refusing to rely on anyone else. However, what you may not know is that this jade tablet is this store’s certification of ownership. From now on, we will address you as ‘Shopkeeper’.”
What he said after that, I was unable to hear.
I seemed to have returned back to that day. Xie Mingjun stood in front of the light, his smile limpid. His eyes seemed to be filled with radiance.
He said, “If you bring those four objects back, I will agree to love you for a lifetime.”
That day, heavy rains poured over the capital. I kneeled in the rain, my voice crying out bitterly, until it too was gone.
¹A gu is created through sealing many poisonous creatures into one jar; the lone survivor is considered to possess the concentrated poisons of all its downed foes.
²A-Lin wanders through several ancient regions of China:
(1) Northeast China (关外) — Considered to be the region of land east of the ancient borders of Shaanxi. In the map above, most of guanwai included the shaded top right region.
(2) Central China (塞北) — The region then said to divide China between the nomadic tribes in the north and the agricultural Han presence in the South. Most of the saibei region was concentrated around the Great Wall of China. In the map above, the land between the top-most uncolored region and the dark-green region in the middle was considered to be saibei.
(3) Southwestern China (苗疆) — Referring to the lands dominated by the Miao ethnic tribes in southwestern China. Miaojiang included parts of modern-day Guizhou, Sichuan, Yunnan, Hunan, Chongqing, and Guangxi. In the map above, the light green land in the middle-left of the map was considered to be miaojiang.
(4) Central Plains (中原) — The place where A-Li and Xie Mingjun live. This land primarily revolved around the Yellow River, and was considered to be the birthplace of Chinese civilization. In the map above, the dark green region encompasses most of zhongyuan.