Guess who is this picture of. 🙂
Normal words = present
Slanted words = past, emphasis and thoughts
The woman snuck a few glances at the masked man sitting across from her.
The road way back to China was bumpy and with their interesting new guest, she could not help but observe him to idle her time away.
The wound from an unknown source on his stomach was still bleeding and it leaked all over her carriage, yet Zhao Shi did not so much as to give any signs of pain or losing consciousness. It was disturbing that he was so calm and full of smiles although she should not be surprised a lot of things about this man was out of the ordinary since the Man did say Zhao Shi should have been dead for a long time and the question as to why he was still living and breathing have yet to be answered. Was he even human?
“You are staring, miss.” Zhao Shi’s deep masculine voice rang through her ears and she gave him a sheepish look.
“Your injury…” The Woman began, but he cut her off gently and looked at the deep scarlet gash on his torso.
“This? It is nothing I cannot handle. Please, do not worry about it, miss.”
“Are you a demon?” She abruptly asked.
He gave her a look of surprise at the absurd question out of nowhere. She thought that might be a possibility did not seem like a mortal, but even the rude question shocked her, but it was too late to take it back now. Besides, the masked man did not seem to mind since he let out a roar of laughter.
“A demon?! I have been asked thousands of questions during my lifetime, but this is the first time someone asked me that!”
She blushed and decided to quickly ask a different question.
“Then…since you asked about my home country earlier, are you Vietnamese?”
He looked at the Woman, amused. “Have you ever seen a Vietnamese man as handsome as I?”
“. . . . .”
When she realized Zhao Shi was actually serious with his comment, she was about to give a sarcastic reply but then had a sneaky thought.
“I would not know. You cover the top half of your face so why don’t you take off your mask and let me see?” She said. Her heart began to pick up speed in anticipation for his reaction.
“That is something that I cannot do at this minute and I apologize for it my lady.” He declined graciously.
Swallowing her disappointment to not look nosy, she convinced herself that it was probably because his face was too ugly so he was shy in revealing it. That notion was something she could empathize with.
“Let me bandage your wound then.” The woman opted to say as she reached for her medical bag in the trunk of the carriage.
Zhao Shi let her dress his scar without a word of complaint even when she made him take off his upper clothes and stitched the wound little by little with the sharpest needle she could find. It was quiet as she worked on his torso. The Man rode on his horse outside next to them silently.
“You are very trusting.” Zhao Shi interrupted the still atmosphere.
“Huh?” The woman looked up, confused at what he just said.
“You have only just met me a few hours ago. I, a man who suddenly appeared in front of you out of thin air on a mountain during the winter, who shared very little information about himself, not to mention, covering his face and yet here you are helping me with an injury that you do not even know the cause of.” She saw that the man’s cheerful demeanor vanished without a trace. The dark eyes behind the mask looked at her wonderingly without blinking.
“Why is that? Are all Yue (Vietnamese) women like this?” He asked.
The woman was not sure how to answer that. He was right. A few hours ago, she was deeply suspicious of him too, but then why was she assisting him? Maybe it was because she believed in the Man outside as the two men made it pretty clear that they knew each other and were on friendly terms.
“I do not trust you. ” She said slowly and nodded her head out the window in the Man’s direction. “I trust him even if I hate him. Besides, I have dealt and fought with a lot of horrid people in my life, but you do not seem like one of them.”
She then looked at Zhao Shi fiercely.
“Us Yue women are not so naive as to trust without thought. If lied to, we are not afraid to strike you from the front with our swords.”
He did not say anything else when he heard her sincere words and she finished repairing his wound. The rest of the ride back was uncomfortable.
“How much longer until we get to the inn?” The Woman yelled at Tung Quang in case her driver could not hear over the horse’s gallops and rough road.
“We have just arrived, my lady.” He called back and the carriage stopped in front of a rather vacant inn the Man spoke of. The Man got off his horse and opened the carriage door and looked inside at the two of them.
“Only take what you need for the night. The rest of your things shall stay here in the carriage in case something happens and we have to move quickly.” He left and Zhao Shi and the Woman did as they were told.
A short, humped old man greeted the four of them softly as they entered the small building. He was noticeably more reverent to the Man and Zhao Shi.
The inn had a total of three bedrooms. The men insisted the Woman have one room to herself. When she told them that Tung Quang can share the room with her since the two were close, the Man’s eyes darkened considerably and yanked the poor coachman aside to share the room with him instead.
At dinner time, Zhao Shi finally disclosed an explanation about his endeavor prior running into them on the mountain.
“Han soldiers were on my track when I was on my way to find you, my lord.” He began while sipping his wine. “I was lucky we managed to outrun them on time. If it were not for this lovely lady here, I might actually not be able to complete my quest.”
“How did they recognized that you were the former prince of Panyu (modern day Guangzhou)?” Man asked.
The Woman and Tung Quang quietly chewed on the vegetable dumplings the old man served them and listened to the two Northern men.
“I suppose they managed to see the kingdom of Panyu seal on Feng Dai. I was careless in that regard.” Zhao Shi gave a light-hearted chortle.
It is noted that Zhao Shi was always cheerful, even during inappropriate times like when he was about to be killed. Feng Dai was the name of Zhao Shi’s sword. It meant sharp knife technique.
He took out the weapon and showed all three of them the exquisite seal at the top of the blade.
“You were a prince of Panyu?” She questioned, raising her eyebrows slightly. She felt her stomach drop steadily as she asked this next question tensedly. “Were you in anyway, related to the Chinese commander Zhao Tuo?”
Please say no. Please say no.
She chanted continuously inside her frantic head. She really hoped that this masked man traveling with them had nothing to do with the former ruler that tricked her country and invaded them just after making peace with them a few centuries ago. The Man looked at the Woman’s stiff state inquiringly.
“What is the matter?” He asked. Before she could answer, Zhao Shi naturally chimed in accordingly.
“Yes, indeed I am the eldest son of Emperor Zhao Tuo.”
All of the Woman’s blood seemed to rush into her head as the man unhurriedly took off his dark blue mask.
~ ~ ~ ~
The Man tightly held the Woman back as she thrashed and flitted in his arms violently.
“Bastard.” She spat at Zhao Shi whereas he merely looked at her unperturbed.
“You knew who I was didn’t you? After what you and your father did, you dare to show yourself in front of me again?”
“Woman, calm yourself.” The Man and Tung Quang continued to restrain her less she try to attack the prince.
The old man who controlled the resort they were staying in stood to the side behind a table looking at the scene in front of him frightfully.
“Miss, hear me out first before you act rashly-” Zhao Shi started…
“No! Do not even try to lie your way out.” The Woman made a move to get out of the Man’s grasp again, but he did not let her and punctured a point on her body to still her movements. She glared hatefully back.
“Listen to me, my lady. It is true, I do not deny it. My father-no, my people had wronged you. We had turned our backs on you and lied to you when your country relied and trusted us after the peace treaty.” The prince began again.
This time, the Woman had no choice, but to listen since she could not move.
He continued, “I do not appear before you today to repeat the same unforgivable acts I did years ago.”
She scoffed and turned her head away. “Right. You expect me or anyone else from my land to believe your words at this point?”
“Your skepticism and scorn is understandable. I do not expect to earn your trust now, nevertheless, I have come here with a quest to complete and I am not leaving until I have accomplished it. I cannot do it without your or my lord’s help however.”
“You have a lot of nerve asking for my help. That Man over there can help you accomplish with whatever you need. I want to have nothing to do with you Northern people anymore; I am going home.” The Woman turned to the Man.
“Mobilize me.” She demanded.
They had almost forgot she could not maneuver herself do to his martial arts tactic.
“I cannot do that.” He shook his head gently at her.
“Why not?! Are you going to try to control me again?” She narrowed her eyes at him and warned, “I won’t hesitate to fight you.”
“Indeed you will not, but if I allow you to move right now, you will try to go home when it is dark and snowing heavily outside. You will die on the road before you even reach your destination.” The Man reasoned with her. At that, she said nothing, but her frown remained.
He sighed at her indignant resignation and rubbed his temples to relieve a headache.
“It is late. We will continue to discuss this in the morning. Everyone go to bed.” The lord of the North breached no room for arguments.
He took a reluctant Tung Quang with him and they all went to their respective rooms and tried to rest for the night.
The old innkeeper let out a sigh of relief and blew out all the candles in the house, and prayed to Buddha the group of people leave as soon as possible so no trouble comes to his area.
The Woman woke up late the next morning. That is to be expected as she was up all night thinking and fidgeting. Groggily, she got up to wash herself and got dressed.
Both the Man and Zhao Shi were already up looking cleaned and impeccable as ever, eating breakfast while speaking silently to each other. They stopped what they were saying and looked at the young Southern Woman as she walked down the stairs.
“Where is Tung Quang?” She asked, seating herself a few chairs away from the two men.
“He is still sleeping upstairs.” Zhao Shi answered her and offered her some egg dropping soup.
Was he trying to earn her forgiveness by being nice to her? Hmph. She pettily declined his offering and grabbed a bread stick instead. She knew she was being childish, but who could blame her after all that has happened really?
The Man and the prince did not resume their discussion when she came down and the three of them were lost in their own thoughts while munching on their meals instead. After a little while, the Woman noticed Zhao Shi kept giving her discreet looks of guilt. As for what it was for, she did have a bit of a clue.
She placed her chopsticks down on the table with a clang and heaved a sigh. She got out of her chair and marched up to him with a determined look on her face.
“Look. I do not know what it is that you need to get accomplished and I do not know if you had any personal relationships with any of my people nor do I care. But you need to at least answer this question of mine. Why are you still alive?” The Woman interrogated as she slammed her hands on both sides of the table in front of him.
“Like I said yesterday, I need to complete a mission first before I ‘pass on.’” He answered her with innocent looking dark eyes.
“That does not tell us anything!” She threw her hands up in frustration.
Zhao Shi paused for minute, looking thoughtfully into thin air before proceeding.
“I am searching for someone.” He settled with that.
“Who?” “And who would that be?” The Man and Woman asked simultaneously.
“My wife.” The prince of Panyu answered with a fleeting half smile on his face.
Before any of them could say anymore, they heard a shout outside. All three of them immediately stood up and looked around them, alarmed.
A low, guttural voice called out. “Halt!”
The Woman looked in horror when she saw the old innkeeper got hit on the head with the hilt of someone’s sword. The old man fell down the floor promptly with a bleeding head. Uniformed soldiers came into the house in unending numbers; all were pointing spears and blades at the three individuals.
“That prince you have with the two of you is under arrest by order of the royal court for betraying Han’s rule years ago, theft and murder.”