So here we have chapter 2. Thank you for all the comments last chapter! I did not expect that I would get as many as I got. 🙂
FYI, “girl” or “young girl” refers to the “Woman.”
Slanted font = past, thoughts and emphasis
Normal font = present
It was a bit sudden, but who would have thought that one day amongst thousands of days when her country is constantly being attacked by all sorts of people that the man would show up to save her.
The woman and her brothers were desperate as they used the last of their current army to fend off the Mongols. Vuong and Hung, her two older brothers were isolated in one area in the Northern part of the land, possibly by the majority of the Hun army. The woman on the other hand was cornered by three of their soldiers in the South.
One of the soldiers clad in heavy rusty armor sneered as he took a step towards her. His mace looked as if it would swing any moment. The hair on the back of the young girl stood up as sweat glands dripped down her brow. All of her weapons were either knocked out of her small hands or broken.
The Hun raised his mace and she squeezed her eyes shut. Words of her impending death filled her mind…
There was a thud and the girl felt a heavy body fall on her causing her to be pushed to the dusty ground. A strong hand gripped her frail arms and pulled her up with surprising force. She slowly opened her eyes expecting to see a frightening face readying to slay her but encountered deep obsidian eyes and a kind face instead. The odd man sized the girl from top to bottom and said something to a few more soldiers behind him using a strange language.
Unlike the Mongols, the newcomer and his group wore cleaner and darker armor despite it being covered in blood. All of their heads were covered with helmets except for the man who just saved her.
His long black hair was tied in a high pony-tail. He gave a commanding sound to two other soldiers and they immediately left on their horse.
The young Southern girl looked jealously at the way the male stranger elegantly took out a piece of white cloth and wiped the blood clean off his sword. With that simple action, she was held captivated. No one had ever saved the woman like he did before. She had been attacked and invaded for years, but this was the first time someone attempted to rescue her.
The man carried her on his horse after asking if she was hurt anywhere and together, they journeyed to his world.
He was a strange and aloof man. There were days when he would appear at court appearing like the supreme regal leader who instills fear and intimidation to those around him and especially those who oppose him. But there were also days when he would leisurely stroll around the villages acting every bit the commoner enjoying his time helping out or plainly watch the common folks. She figured out back then that he was someone who controlled everything in the vast Northern land just like she controlled everything in the much smaller Southern land.
The girl took every opportunity she could find to tag along with him everywhere he went whether it be his daily morning walks, his meals, his business trips and the like. As a foreigner from the South, she was often looked down upon by the Northern citizens, particularly the men and ladies of the royal court, and so her obvious affectionate actions towards their leader was heavily frowned on. She was too innocent and foolish back then and was completely oblivious to their contempt.
She could not tell whether the strange man liked her clingy affections towards him or not. He was often exasperated and frustrated with her with a touch of faint amusement. Ladies everywhere, aside from his classic good looks, had always been attracted to his unique charms and charisma. He would always respond to them courteously, but that was all there was to it. He never went any further than polite smiles as it was his distant nature.
She once actually believed that she could change his aloof ways and maybe, find a way through his heart. Who was she kidding…Until now, she still scoffs bitterly on all those past bittersweet memories that were so painful to think about.
How did their relationship go downhill from there? He was thick-skinned and insensitive to her own feelings. Living in his country was difficult. His superior and peers made her study their academics, literature, arts and she tried to build herself up to be the ideal traditional female beauty of the Northern land. She practiced their dances until her feet got sore. She read as many books as they would allow a girl of her “lower” caliber to read so she could be knowledgeable and gain the man’s attentions. The girl noticed he never payed attention to the women of the court who did nothing, but looked pretty and flapped their silk fans. She stayed away from the sun as much as she could so her skin would be fair and luminous as that was considered ideal. Everything he wanted, she tried to give or do for him.
She always told him as much and he would give a hearty laugh and say, “Everything I want? But how could that be possible for you to do?”
“I can even get the whole entire world for you if that is what you want.” The girl stubbornly said.
“The whole world?” The man mused and she thought she saw something flicker in his eyes. He gave a faint smile and patted her head. After that, he disappeared within the darkness of the night.
Funny how she always had to look at his back every time he walks away.
There was a time when the girl snuck inside the man’s room to return a book she “borrowed” to read for the evening after a day’s worth studying, but upon coming back to her dismay, he was already present inside the room.
“It is always better to ask first before you take somebody else’s belongings. One might think you a thief you know.” He lightly commented.
She blushed and looked down, ashamed.
“My lord, would this be the girl you spoke of? The one whom you recruited to be apart of our nation?” A soft female voice asked. The girl could see a feminine shape walking towards them from behind the curtains.
“Yes, that would be her, Mei Xiang.” The man gave the graceful beauty a warm, appraising look she had never seen he gave anyone before including herself.
Mei Xiang adjusted the golden hairpins in her glossy black hair and nodded in my direction with a little mysterious smile with her peony-liked lips. She then turned her black eyes to the man.
“Shall we continue with the lessons, my lord?”
He picked up his bamboo brush, but before he continued with the undone canvas on his right, he looked up at the girl standing awkwardly there. “You ought to leave for now as I need not be disturbed at the moment. Go find Huan (a gardener at the Golden palace) and see if he needs your assistance with the orchids.”
She stared at him dejectedly and began to speak, “Actually, I was hoping you could help me with chapter-“
“Did you hear? I am clearly not to be disturbed right now.” He interjected, unfazed and continued the discussion with the elegant Northern woman.
The young Southern girl hurried out immediately.
Mei Xiang. The girl soon found out the beautiful woman was her savior’s painting instructor and by the looks of things, the two were clearly in love with one another. She had seen the way he looked at her.
Why did he never look at her with that tender expression? Why must it be her? Selfish, jealous and insecure thoughts filled her mind from that day on forth.
She did not show up at the palace that night, nor the next day and the next. At first, the man told the worried servants and maids that she would turn up soon if she wanted to eat, but by the fourth day, when she did not appear, he went to look for her himself.
He found her by the lotus pond playing the zither his personal music teacher taught her underneath a tree shade. Nowadays, she used a revised version from his original Guzheng (Chinese zither) to her own Dan Tranh (Vietnamese zither.) Her fingers were still clumsy and awkward, but her music quality improved.
When the now “Woman” heard footsteps interrupt her in the middle of her song, she looked up to see the familiar male figure coming her way. He smiled at her as he sat down on her left and relaxed his hands on his lap. She gave a frown and turned back to her instrument and continued playing. The man ignored the little slight and took out his own Guzheng and played along with her song albeit with more obvious skills.
The woman’s brow furrowed deeper when she heard another zither being played right next to her and gave him an annoyed look.
Oh, so now you want to see me? Only to irritate me! She thought huffily.
“Your fingering is incorrect.” He commented after a few minutes. She looked down at her fingers and indeed, right after he showed up, her fingers became lopsided on the strings. She fixed it immediately.
“You should also play more smoothly otherwise your audience will not be able to feel the music.” He commented again.
This time, the woman looked up at him in exasperation.
“I want to be left alone!” She snapped.
The man was mildly surprised if not a bit amused. This was the first time he had seen her angry at him and speak to him in such a way. He hazarded it was because of his treatment of her days ago when he was with the painting instructor. The ruler of the Northern nation was no fool. He and many others had been very aware of the Southern country girl’s love for him along with many other women.
Even he knew he did not treat her as well as she deserved. He sighed.
“Are you still angry with me?” He asked.
“Very much so!” Was her hasty answer.
He saw that her cheeks were flushed and finally saw her puffy dark eyes. Those brown eyes of hers must have shed many tears not long ago.
Of course he did not leave her alone like she wanted. To her surprise, he stopped playing the song she was playing and rested his white slender fingers on the delicate strings. The next moment, the movements were too fast and so all she saw was a blur, but the man was playing the Guzheng so fast and so skillfully, her jaws could not help from dropping. The song was a Chinese folk song written by a famous poet that lived about two dynasties ago.
The young man saw the awed gaze from her and his mouth twitched. She saw the laughter in his eyes and could not help, but smile shyly back.
This ancient memory when things were still blissful and peaceful between the Man and the Woman were supposed to be eradicated from her heart hundreds of years ago. Unfortunately, she loathes herself for never letting go of this one moment between them in her heart.
What went wrong? As years go by, from her perspective of things, the Man grew more oppressive and she found herself having to do things she never thought that she nor her people would have to do under his rule. He clearly knew how she felt about him, but never gave a straight answer. His nature grew even more eccentric and aloof and happy memories between them lessened over time. And then after that, all she could remember was blood and the sharp edge of a steel sword.
Her Western neighbor whom she sees as another brother after her other two older brothers died, once asked her, “Were you not part of him and his country before? Why are you and your land by itself now?”
She would look at him straight in the eyes and say, “Who knows? Perhaps he had disappointed me or I had disappointed him. Maybe after years of longing and yearning for someone without hope only for it to truly end without hope, one has to finally realized they were better off without them.”
(Vietnamese Dan Tranh)
The man looked from the doorway as the woman’s carriage goes further and further away from his view.
He knew she was going to leave with no intention of noticing him since their little clash last night. He stood there looking out pensively as the woman who left a deep scar in his heart, once again, turned her back on him.
Traveling back and forth between her country and his was no easy task. Between them were bumpy roads, thieves, traffickers and most of all, countless of mountains. If you were unfortunate and not aware, you could have gone across the borders during the winter where it snowed heavily in the North.
After about an hour of tireless riding, the woman’s coachman pulled their horse to a screeching stop. Alarmed, she looked through the window curtains.
“What happened, Tung Quang?” She demanded.
“There is someone coming our way!” Her servant replied uneasily.
Eh? She looked into the direction he pointed. An odd man stopped about five feet away from them. He was garbed in brown woolen robes with the standard long jet black hair. The most peculiar thing about this man however was that he was wearing a dark blue mask covering half of his pale face. From what little the woman can make out of the man, she figured he was quite young; perhaps around twenty-seven or twenty-eight circles around the sun.
She stopped herself before she could over analyze him for courtesy’s sake.
“Excuse me, sir. We need to get around you so can you please move to the side a little for us?” She asked as politely as she could.
“Where are you heading, miss?” He asked in the standard Northern language with a lilting accent to it. The masked man did not move a single muscle to let the woman pass. She scrunched her eyebrows suspiciously.
“We are heading South. Where my homeland is.” She answered slowly.
The masked man’s mouth curled up suddenly, causing the woman to slightly shiver.
“In the South, ah? Is your home country below the land of Nanyue, miss? Are you its female spirit?” He asked lightly as if he was talking to an old friend and this perturbed the woman greatly.
“Why are you asking so many questions? So what if I am?” She said impatiently. She really want to go back home and here was this virtual stranger asking her personal questions. “We do not know each at all. You could be someone evil for all I know!”
He laughed and bowed to her deeply.
“Forgive me, miss. You can say I am…well acquainted…with some of the people from your country. I assure you I am no one you ought to be wary of.” He said carefully as he took a step forward.
Tung Quang immediately pulled the woman back and took out the sword from his waist. She shook him off and turned back to the masked man and glared.
“Ha! You say that and yet you cover your face like that. Who exactly are you, pray tell?” She tried to make her voice as firm as she could.
“Forgive me, miss.” He said once again. “But I am in dire need of your assistance. Do you think you could take me back to the ruler of this country on your carriage? I understand you need to head back South, but this situation requires me back North immediately. At this rate with how I am traveling alone on foot, I shall never arrive there on time.”
Ruler of this country? Could he possibly mean him? It does not matter. He never told her who he was so she had every right to refuse him outright.
“No. You never answered my previous question regarding your identity.” The woman said simply.
All the masked man did was bow again. “Please, miss.”
He seemed persistent to keep his name and background hidden as well as persistent in getting a ride from her all the way back to the place she was trying to run away from in the first place. The worst part was that he seemed to know who she is. Who is this man exactly?
“What is going on here?” Another voice was heard from behind her.
All three turned around to see the “ruler of the Northern country” on his black horse, wearing his standard black cloak.
The woman gaped. “What are you doing here?!” She shrieked. Was he following them all this time?
The man gave her a fleeting glance and then afterwards, focused on the mysterious masked man.
“Do not make so much unnecessary noise. I was just tailing after you silently to make sure you do not run into any trouble on your way back.” He said indifferently. She huffed and crossed her arms.
“Ah! It has been quite a while has it not, my lord?” The man in brown garbs spoke cheerfully. The Man narrowed his eyes at him.
The wide grin on the masked man faltered a little.
“Do you…not remember me?” He asked lowly, but then an idea seemed to register in him and he chuckled. “Ah right! I am wearing a mask.”
He stepped closer to the Man and the woman saw his movements from behind. He raised his hands and took off the face cover only for the Man to see. To say the woman was frustrated with curiosity would be an understatement.
Recognition flitted over the man’s face slowly and his black eyes widened considerably.
“Y-you…you…should have been dead two hundred years ago.”
This was the first time the woman saw the ever self-possessed dignified ruler of the North nation stutter.
Wait…should have been dead two hundred years ago?! She ran up to the two men.
“Can somebody please explain to me what is going on? What do you mean that he should have been dead two hundred years ago?” She demanded while rudely pointing a finger at the mysterious man in brown.
By the time, she arrived, he covered his face with the blue mask again with superior agility. They ignored her. The masked man said something to the Man’s ears and he nodded immediately as he gave the masked man a look once over; his concerned eyes directed at a specific area.
The lord of the North finally turned to the Woman.
“Zhao Shi shall ride in your carriage along with you. I will take all of us to a place to stay temporarily as it is not safe for master Zhong to appear at the palace at this time.” With that, he hopped back on his horse and rode away. The Woman only looked on hopelessly as she was now being dragged back to the beginning without a clue as to what in the seven hells was happening.
“Zhao Shi…” She murmured as the familiar name rolled around her tongue.
“My name is Zhao Shi.” A male voice answered. The masked man gave her a mischievous smile before helping himself inside the carriage with a miserable Tung Quang standing on the side.
Tung Quang bent over to whisper in the Woman’s ear. “Do you see that, my lady?”
“See what?” She asked.
He pointed at the ground. On the ground, was a little trail of blood that lead up all the way to the patch of crimson on Zhong Shi’s waist as he entered coach.
~ ~ ~ ~
So this chapter was mainly from the “Woman’s” perspective. You all will get to read from the “Man’s” perspective, but it is a long way from this chapter. What I value is character depth and development and despise flat characters especially when it comes to male leads. I don’t like it when all a male lead need to acquire to be a successful sell is to be super good-looking, black-bellied and rich. But hey, character depth is the reason why I love Lu Jun and can never see the appeal of Feng Teng. This must be my tenth time reading “Wipe Clean after Eating.” I still cannot stop laughing.
Btw, my parents and I just finished the last episode of “Romance of the Condor Heroes” and omg. So much cheesy scenes were cringe worthy. I’m glad it’s over with. >_<