I’ve forgotten how long it’s been since Yellow Springs Inn1 first opened.
Since it was an inn by the road to the Yellow Springs, the people that would stop by for a break were few and far in between, so most of my time was spent idly watching the souls float past my vision and never come back.
Their expressions varied: some forced, some unwilling, some reluctant…
One person caught my attention. This was because he stopped right in front of me, and he was very beautiful.
Yes, this was a man, and very beautiful man at that, skin soft and supple, eyes bright and teeth white. If it had been the body of a female, he would definitely be a beauty that, when placed in a brothel, would draw in crowds of fighting men. Unfortunately, this was a man. For a man to be beautiful, ultimately it would not be a good thing.
“This gentleman seems to be a little tired, why don’t you come in and sit down, our shop offers free tea, and past this village there will be no more shops.”
The beautiful man in front of me forced a smile, following me into the shop.
Ah, his smiling expression was full of bitterness; who was the the one who caused such a beautiful man to let out such an expression, if I caught them I definitely would give them a good round of scolding.
He clearly was reduced to only a soul now, and the heart could not follow with the soul. I really would like to see what kind of person made him think about them so much.
I put a cup down in front of him, the sound of the cup colliding against the table calling him back to reality. He sounded out his thanks, then sipped on the tea tentatively.
“It really is good tea.” He put down the cup and smiled a bit towards me. I felt like my heart was hooked away by him. “Lady boss’s tea is really good, I’ve never drank a taste like this before.”
“This is Forget Worries Tea, drinking this will allow people to lighten up a bit. It uses daylily [which means forget worries]; they grow all over the path of the Yellow Springs, while the human world has none at all.”
“Ha ha, this happiness is not real at all.”
“Guest, this you don’t understand: some people like this fake kind of happiness; using this fake happiness to cover the real pain, at least their heart wouldn’t hurt as much, no?”
The beautiful man refused to comment, though he didn’t touch that cup of tea ever again.
I swayed the fan in my hand, simply sitting down on a side of the square table; this distance was just right, not too close and not too far, suitable for a conversation.
“Guest seems to have something on his mind, there’s no harm in speaking it out; after crossing the Bridge of Forgetfulness, drinking Meng Po’s soup2, even a slightest scar of this life wouldn’t remain; it’s better if you just told me.”
The man glanced out the door to watch the amorphous wandering ghosts, then sighed.
“You’re right, after a little while I’ll have forgotten everything, talking a bit wouldn’t do me any harm.”
I gestured to show that I was listening, and spread out my hands to invite him to begin.
I was a court musician, and from a young age I was sent into the palace to study the art of zither3.
That year, it was my first time performing for a banquet; it was a banquet prepared by the emperor in honor of the general’s victorious return. That one time, I met him.
A palace maid who was on good terms with me dragged me behind a corner to peek. In my heart I was nervous, wanting to leave but unable to persuade her otherwise.
“Jin Qing, come look, that person is definitely the general!”
I looked in the direction she was pointing; that person’s facial appearance was handsome and clear, with heroic eminence, talking amiably with everyone, really one to admire from afar but not to approach.
The little palace maid was so excited that I was could barely hold her back any longer.
“Jin Qing, I never thought that the general would be such a handsome man; if I had even a half of your beauty it would be good; the general would definitely like me.”
Her remarks made me feel embarrassed and at a loss of what to do, only wanting to quickly leave.
I sneakily cast a glance at the general. As if sensing my gaze upon him, he turned his head, and we were face to face. The smile in his eyes refused to dissipate, that smiling countenance dazzled the eyes like the sun in the dark night, compelling me to not move my gaze.
The song I performed was the very last one in the banquet, I watched the general’s probing gaze as I finished up the piece; it wasn’t done yet before I heard the emperor’s voice.
“Ai Qing, whatever it is you want, zhen4 will bestow it upon you.”
I quietly held my zither, slowly waiting for his next words. I wanted to know, what would such a person want?
“Chen5, wants that zither player.”
Zither player? My heart trembled, and I raised my head to look at that general. His hand was pointing straight at me, unwavering, and my heart rose up in my chest.
“Oh, so Ai Qing wants him.”
Meeting the emperor’s gaze, I immediately dropped my head. All the people in the banquet fixed their gaze on me; it was like being on pins and needles.
“Raise your head, let zhen look a bit.”
Imperial edicts were not easy to defy. I struggled to raise my head, not daring to look at the emperor, and resigned myself to staring at the hem of the general’s brocade robes.
The emperor suddenly laughed heartily, clapping loudly.
“Good, good, good, Ai Qing really has good eyesight. This zither player will be bestowed upon you then.”
“Thanking Your Majesty.”
The emperor turned to me.
“Today you should just follow the general to the general’s residence.”
I carried my zither as I cautiously followed the general out the royal palace, sneakily gazing at the general’s back. The general’s back was as straight as a brush, making him appear even more lofty.
A servant lead the general’s horse over. The general mounted his horse with a flip and extended his hand towards me, a slight smile on his face, “Tonight’s scenery isn’t bad; how about you let them take care of the zither and we can go out on a night stroll together, what do you think?”
Perhaps it was because the general’s smiling expression under the moonlight was too enticing, I surprisingly took his hand without resisting to allow him to pull me up onto the horse and speed away, leaving behind the entourage looking at each other in dismay.
The general’s horse galloped extremely fast, and my heart beat extremely fast. I had never been this reckless and willful; this kind of happiness was one that I had never dared to hope for before.
“Happiness should be expressed with a smiling face, not an anxious one.”
I looked at the general’s gleaming eyes and returned a smile, evoking a bout of laughter.
“Your smile makes the people watching you also feel pleased, you ought to smile more.”
Listening to the general’s bright laughter by my ear, I felt that this was the happiest moment of my life.
Surprisingly, the general noticed that I liked peace and quiet, and was especially looking for a quiet place where I could live.
He never called upon me to play the zither for him: every time he came alone without an entourage to hear me play, every time complimenting that I played well, and often would tell me about interesting things that had happened recently. Knowing that I had never been outside of the palace, when there was free time he would bring me out to sightsee, and when he felt tired he would fall asleep without even a trace of wariness.
Those times really were extremely blissful, making me forget my status, making me think that I could forever live my days like this, until that day…
At this moment he paused, perhaps thinking of some hurtful matter, he held the tea cup tightly in his hand, staring frozenly at the image on the surface of the water, perhaps seeing the general’s reflection.
I also did not bother him, merely sitting on the side quietly waiting.
After a long while, he opened his mouth once more…
That day, the general’s residence received an imperial edict: the emperor decreed that he would bestow marriage upon the general and the fourteenth princess. For him this news was a blessing, for me it was like thunder on a clear day, shattering the illusion I had held for so long, and ending my dream-like days.
On this day, the general was at my place for a very, very long time, was in the courtyard from the first smears of black on the sky all the way till daylight, drinking one cup of wine after another, not quick, not slow, and never ending, all the way till daylight without getting drunk.
His back faced me as he watched the morning sun beginning to rise, saying slowly, “Little Qing, tell me, why can’t I get drunk?”
Towards that still tall and straight back, I did not know what to say.
With the wedding about to arrive, the general became more and more busy, and the number of times I could meet him became less and less. When he came he no longer chatted with me like he did before, only coming to hear me play a song before leaving. I knew that he did not want to take a wife, and also knew that the emperor’s decree could not be disobeyed; even if with a high social status, there were still times when there was no freedom to act as an individual.
The date of the wedding finally arrived; despite the all the festivity and gongs and drums and clamor, I did not have the courage to go out and have a look, have a look at his figure clothed in red. The general’s words to me the night before still rang in my mind.
“Jin Qing, it would be so wonderful if you were female, I would definitely take you in as a wife.”
Afterwards, the general’s frequents were no longer often, and he never brought me out ever again; once, he brought up letting me be independent, but I already didn’t know how I would survive through the years after leaving him, just being in a corner observing him was good enough.
A pity the heavens did not heed mortal desires; the princess somehow learned of my presence, unexpectedly coming in person to see me, this was the first time I saw the princess, a beautiful and alluring woman.
She sized me up before opening her mouth to say, “The general is my husband, I am the general’s officially wedded wife, so I cannot tolerate you.”
She took out a vase and put it in front of me.
I knew that this day would arrive, but I had never thought this day would come so soon.6
This was another lovesick person; how could there be so many lovesick people in the world?
“I didn’t think I would actually talk for so long, and I don’t know how, but this is the first time I’ve said so much.” He laughed bashfully.
“It’s no harm, they all say that I have a face that makes people want to say everything, as long as you are willing to tell, I am willing to listen.”
“I’ve rested for so long, I ought to be getting along, many thanks for the lady boss’s reception.”
“Then I won’t send you out, take care.”7
I swayed the fan as I watched him leave; each person’s road can only be walked by himself.
My road is to watch over this Yellow Springs Inn, listening to the passerby’s stories.
– end –
1. Yellow Springs: They represent the netherworld of Chinese mythology.
2. the Bridge of Forgetfulness and Meng Po: The Bridge of Forgetfulness is the bridge that one passes over in the underworld before reincarnating. At the end of the bridge is Meng Po, also known as Lady Meng. She will give a bowl of soup, which one drinks to erase the memories of the life one has just completed. After this, one will reincarnate. Usually, If you did some terrible things in your life, the King of the Underworld (different in various works, though usually referred to as Yama, Enma, Yan Wang, or sometimes just Hades for consistency with American works) can take away your right to reincarnate.
3. zither: Called a gu qin in chinese, it is a stringed instrument, a very traditional one in China. If you want to know what it looks like, google it.
4. zhen: the emperor’s way of addressing himself. He won’t say, “I am the emperor, and all must bow down before me,” he will say, “Zhen is the emperor, and all must bow down before zhen.” Think of it as how some people use “moi” to address themselves.
5. chen: It’s along the same lines of zhen: it is the way one refers to oneself when in the presence of the emperor. It is equivalent to saying “this servant” and is basically used to humble yourself and show respect for the emperor.
6. The vase is so that Jin Qing can commit suicide. Perhaps you’ve seen it before, but in c-novels, people in despair, specially fair maidens, tend to attempt commit suicide by smashing their head into something, such as a pillar, a wall, or a vase. It is sort of like how the emperor hands out white cloth to people who he wants to die. The people receiving the cloth are expected to hang themselves with it. It is a more “honorable” death than death by murder, after all.
7. “I won’t send you out” sounds a little insincere in English, but in Chinese, it is very natural when you are familiar with who you are speaking to and the other person is leaving.