So I was finally able to convince my mother to read my favorite black-bellied boss and secretary genre novel: “Wipe Clean after Eating” and she laughed a lot even at the beginning of the novel. That just totally confirms my excellent tastes. 😛
The only sad part is that my mom refuses to believe He Xia(female lead) is plain or “ugly.” That just shows how society still cannot except that less attractive people can find love or be a main character.
Normal words = present
Slanted words = past, word emphasis and thoughts
Zhao Shi mused, unperturbed by the accusation charged against him. “Theft and rebellion I accept, but other than those two “crimes,” I only remember defending myself from tyranny’s tip of the sword with justification.”
“Quiet! Step up and turn in yourself as ordered or we will be forced to take combative measures. No one here is a fool to your crafty nature.”
“Zhao Shi, what is going on?” The Woman asked edgily. She took out her own sword and debated how she was going to awaken Tung Quang and let him know about their current predicament. Her knuckles tightened around the red, jade hilt.
“Miss, please stand behind me. We are in a bit of a tight situation here.” She heard the prince voice out softly from the front.
You don’t say? She thought irritated.
The Man stood behind the two looking intently at the Han guards and commander circling them. One could not tell what he was thinking.
“I suspect that you all know who I am then.” He said after a while. “If you are wise, you would do as I say and lower all your weapons pointed against my fellow companions and I or heads will roll this dawn.”
The Man’s cold yet calm tone made those around them shudder internally including the soldiers. Their commander looked nervously at their Northern master said solemnly,
“Yes, my lord. We would not dare not recognize your authority, but you must realize the man you have with you is dangerous for our country-”
“Apparently you did not hear what I said. Drop all your weapons or heads will roll the next moment your knife does not touch the ground.” The Man interrupted. His voice sounded neither loud nor angry.
Zhao Shi chuckled at his lord’s cold-blooded command. The Woman was just simply disturbed and hoped everything was just a nightmare so that she can wake up in the comforts of her own home.
None of the soldiers made a move to let go of their weapons nor did they show any signs of attacking. The commander seemed to be in a difficult position. He did not want to defy the master of their nation, but he also did not want to lose his elusive status in the Han military forces. The royal court clearly had different plans than their Northern lord in this crucial case and when the two powers clash, the country could easily fall apart.
This time, the Hans were not going to back down on helping the main system capture the former prince convict.
“We are sorry to defy your orders, my lord, but we are only doing our duties for the royal court.” The commander said this with brave determination and made his way towards Zhao Shi.
The Man sighed and flexed his fingers. He hoped it did not have to come to this, but it looked like he would have to exert some unnecessary force to get him and the rest of their group out of this mess.
“My prince, get Woman upstairs to get Tung Quang. We must act in haste.”
Zhao Shi smiled wryly at the displeased woman next to him.
“I apologize for doing this, my lady. I hope you do not begrudge me for this.” He said softly to her ears before picking her up by the waist with one arm and tossed her up over the stairs. With surprising care and strength, she was able to land safely on the wooden floors although her face was still blanched white.
Zhao Shi turned back to the men around him and gave the Man a glance for final verification.
“It would seem we do not have a choice as well in this matter.”
The Woman barged straight into her servant and the Man’s room and looked around for the coachman frantically. To her extreme annoyance, Tung Quang was completely out cold spreading on the lower bunk of the cramped bed with his quilts and pillows all over the floor. She yanked him and up and shook him.
“Wake up! Wake up this instant, you dimwit. We’re being attacked!”
“Wha-?” The coachman groggily opened an eye before snapping back to the real world. “My lady…? What is the matter?”
“Didn’t you hear me? We’re under attacked! Zhao Shi and Man are fighting downstairs.” The Woman snapped and pulled on his arm. “Pack up all your essential items. We need to leave this place as soon as possible.”
The two Southern people quickly and sloppily gathered all their belongings and rushed down the stairs.
To their immense astonishment, both Zhao Shi and the Man were standing and looking around utterly relaxed with not so much as a speck of dust on their immaculate clothing. Around the vast room however, were heaps of bloodied, motionless bodies as well as, to the Woman’s horror, severed heads.
The eyes from the heads rolled up in their sockets and the dried mouth stained with red were partly open. She felt bile rise in her throat as she looked away and bent over the edge of a table with a hand over her mouth. The woman took a few deep breaths before trying to swallow back the morning’s breakfast.
She did not actually think the Man would really stay true to his words, but this is the Northern person she had known for years. If he was not as merciless in keeping his authority as the supreme master, she might have stayed with him a bit longer instead of turning her back in the end.
“Woman?” A deep voice inquired softly from behind her. The Woman hesitated a bit before turning to look back at him. His face was expressionless and still slightly exuberant from the earlier fight and kill.
“Are you alright?” He laid a large hand on her shoulder. Unintentionally, she flinched at the physical contact and instinctively took a step back.
“I’m fine.” She tried to compose herself to the normal, graceful person she trained herself out to be as the proud ruler of her own nation and tried to give him a reassuring smile. “Just a little too much early morning drama for my tastes. We should probably go now.”
The Man did not say anything. Little did the Southern woman know, he figured out exactly what was going through her mind the moment he touched her and her body’s response to it. Hurt and pain flashed in his deep, dark eyes, but it was gone as quickly as it came.
Both Zhao Shi and the Man paid the owner of the country inn generously for both the hospitality, the head injury and the problems with the Han soldiers. All the dead bodies were left for the old man to clean up.
Zhao Shi informed of a place where the four of them can take shelter and so the four traveled for the rest of the day.
They did not arrive at the designated cave under a mountain until around noon the next day.
“This is the place we will be staying at?” The Woman asked as she flicked off a drop of water from her forehead. She looked at the pitch, black, rock ceiling above her. Waking up, soaking wet the next morning was very likely.
“We haven’t got much options as more royal forces will be on our leads soon and most civilians will recognize us anywhere by now.” Zhao Shi remarked as he placed his package on a flattened boulder and sat himself down. Tung Quang and the Woman watched as the Man built a large fire for the four of them to keep warm.
“You are the one who brought all this havoc to us. What do you suggest we do then?” She asked bluntly.
“For now, we will find my wife.” He replied as he stirred the fire the Man set up. In the meanwhile, the Man took out a stone kettle from his bag and started to boil some tea.
“Where is she and what does she have to do with your mission?” The Woman felt like they kept asking these sort of questions over and over, but all of Zhao Shi’s answers were always infuriatingly obscure.
“You can say she is the mission itself.”
The Man handed each person a small cup of chrysanthemum tea and raised a fine ink-brow at the prince of Panyu.
“Care to elaborate?”
“Atonement. That is what I am planning to do.” Zhao Shi took a sip from his cup. No one said anything else for a while as they let his words process in their heads.
“So where does your wife live?” The Woman asked.
“You mean where she lived. You will not find her original home anytime soon.” Zhao Shi gave the Southern ruler a mysterious smirk as he took another sip of tea.
The Woman narrowed her eyes suspiciously and glared at him.
“What the hell do you mean by that?” She asked snappishly. The Man raised a hand at her with a disapproving look.
Zhao Shi turned to look out through the opening of the cavern and his handsome features softened slightly into a wistful if not desolate gaze.
“What I mean to say is that she is no longer alive. We will be searching for her dead body instead.”
. . . .
The Woman stood up brusquely and was about to laugh at the absurdity of things, but stopped herself when she saw that both the Man and that damn prince did not look as if they were fooling around.
She grabbed Zhao Shi’s collar before anyone could restrain her.
“If this is some sick joke of yours, you better stop it now or I will kill you. What are you going to do with somebody else’ carcass? I do not care if she is your wife; who gave you this disgusting mission?”
Zhao Shi tsked at her. He easily removed her grip and patted his brown tunic gracefully.
“My lord was not lying when he told me you were impulsive and prone to violence, miss.”
“Just answer the question, please.” She rolled her eyes.
“All of you will find out soon once you find her body.” The prince answered firmly and turned to the Man. He rummaged through his pack and took out a small, eggshell-colored scroll.
“This is a map I created for the two of you to find her. The basic location is besides the ocean right next to this mountain; you cannot miss it.”
“Hold on. Woman and I are going to find your wife’s cadaver for you?” The Man asked unhurriedly as he eyed the map in his hand.
“I have some errands to run and will not be back until around seven days later. There are some matters in need of being settled before I get to meet my wife again. I deeply apologize for this inconvenience.”
The Man nodded his head knowingly. There were indeed some matters that needed to be accomplished. As Zhao Shi got up and began to pack his supplies again, he turned to look at the Woman.
“If you happen to meet someone by the name of Kim Qui, do not be afraid to listen to his words of wisdom. And now, I take my leave.” With that, hewalked out the cave and disappeared in a flash.
“Now, he assigned us a job that he should be doing instead…” The Woman said slowly as she stared daggers at the scroll in the Man’s hold. The Man chuckled.
“There is a reason why he asked us to look for his wife. We should do it.”
“Why should we be involved in this? No, the better question is why should I be involved in this quest for someone who betrayed my country? What do I get from it?” She grumbled and sat down with her arms crossed.
The Man cannot help, but relay back to those memories from when Woman was still under his rule with her childish laughter as well as tantrums. Whenever he or anyone did something that displeased her, she would sit in a corner with her arms crossed and not care about the reprimands of her superiors and elders. Some habits never change.
“Perhaps you should see things from his point of view instead?” He commented. She gave him a disgruntled, but questioning look.
“Not all is as it appears. Is that not a phrase you hear often? He said that he wanted to atone this time for his actions and that it is part of his assignment. You ought to give him a chance before you callously push him away.” He said lightly, but there seemed to be a heavier connotation to his words as he stared at the Southern Woman sitting across from him.
She pursed her lips under the Man’s watchful eyes and turned her head away. For some reason, every time he is near, she gets nervous and why is there this confusing, terrible inkling that feels dangerously like guilt crawling up from beneath?
Always stubbornly turning her head away whenever she knows she is close to losing an argument. Truly, some habits never change.
The Man coughed before he went too far from turning their current path of topic.
“Besides, if we continue to help Zhao Shi with his mission, we might learn some clues about his alleged “immortality” and why he is here with us when he should have died two centuries ago.”
The Woman blinked and realized the Man’s words did make a lot of sense in terms of benefits, but then blinked again.
“I almost forgot that he is not someone that should not be alive.” She said and looked down at her dirtied shoes.
“I was wondering why you were so surprise when Zhao Shi told you that we were going to find his wife’s body instead.” The Man grinned at her.
The Woman groaned and buried her face between her knees in mortification when she came to the revelation that she overreacted in front of the prince out of her own forgetfulness and stupidity.
~ ~ ~ ~
After Zhao Shi left, the Woman sent Tung Quang back home to inform her people about her whereabouts. The young servant was more than happy to get out of any complicated affair he could avoid.
The map Zhao Shi gave them was based off the beach right next to the forest that divides the mountain (called Putuo Shan) and the ocean. Neither the Man nor the Woman knew what to do at first and so they decided to split up and have a look around.
Despite the chilly weather up North, the sandy and windy atmosphere was still uncomfortable to be fully clothed. Irritated, by the itchy and heated feelings, the Man changed into looser and lighter robes that exposed a little bit of his chest and his hair was tied into a low pony-tail. The Woman also dressed similarly, wearing a pale robe that was easy for traveling and her long hair was unbound; something that the Man inwardly approved of as it showed that she was not married.*
While observing for any signs of clues, writing or special objects that could possibly appear either on the sand or water, something drawn on the map caught the Man’s eyes. On closer inspection, there was a faint trace mark that had an uncanny resemblance to a turtle.
Confused, he called the Woman over. When he heard her light, jotting footsteps draw near, he asked whilst pointing,
“What do you suppose the reason why Zhao Shi drew this for us?”
The Woman looked curiously at the drawing and scrunched forehead, puzzled.
“If you don’t know, then there is no way I would know.” She replied unhelpfully. The Man sighed in response and examined the map further.
“That is because you two are not trying hard enough!” A strange voice called out from below the two of them. Both snapped their heads up and looked at each other in shock.
“Were you the one who said that?” The Woman asked. The Man frowned unhappily.
“My voice is not that high, my lady.” He said in a sardonic manner.
“I am down here!” They heard the voice again and slowly looked down. Unexpectedly, it was not a person that appeared like they presumed albeit having a woman’s voice. Just like any other peculiar events that had been happening lately, it was in fact, a turtle that had been speaking if the Woman was certain her mind was functioning right.
The turtle ignored the couple’s gaping faces of awe above her and smiled earnestly.
“You are looking for the body of the princess in Zhao Shi’s stead, am I correct?” She asked demurely.
“Princess?! Erm-I mean-who are you?” The Woman stuttered after recollecting her senses.
“You may call me Kim Qui.”
“You…are Kim Qui?” The Man finally spoke, his eyes widened slightly. The exquisite turtle with the golden sheen on her shell bowed her head gracefully.
“You have heard of me, my lord?” She asked. The Woman had to secretly praise this reptilian creature for being even more lady-like than her.
“Yes. Zhao Shi told us that if we were to meet someone by the name of Kim Qui, we were to listen to their advice. As you already know, I am the lord of the North. A pleasure.” The Man bowed his head just as sumptuously in return.
“Ah, yes. I understand. Zhao Shi did notify earlier that two people will be helping him search for the princess. Have you any luck so far?” Kim Qui only widened her grin.
“None, unfortunately. That damn prince didn’t give any other helpful explanation or clues other than this map which just shows us a picture of the beach, a turtle drawing and some bizarre sentences I don’t understand.” The Woman groused. The female turtle chuckled.
“Well, what do those sentences say?” She asked.
The Man looked over the script carefully for a moment before he began to read aloud:
“I told that her story in the olden times,
Her heart was placed mistakenly.
Magic crossbow was awarded involuntarily by her to enemy,
Therefore the country was occupied.” **
Other than the mentioning of the crossbow, the Woman could not decipher anything else that was spoken.
“What does all of this mean and how do we find Zhao Shi’s wife with this?” The Man inquired. Kim Qui did not answer and merely nodded her head behind the Man and Woman’s back.
Bemused, the young Woman turned her head back in the direction of the ocean. Sure enough, all of them began to hear a deep, rumbling sound from under their feet that seemed to be transferred from underground from the waters.
The Earth shook more violently and she crouched and squeezed her eyes shut as she held to the ground for dear life. Ocean waves crashed all over the place, but the Man and Kim Qui was unmoved by all of it and only watched the scene in front of them as if they saw this sort of thing everyday.
All of the sudden, the Woman felt the ground calm down slowly before it stopped shaking completely. There was a light tap on her shoulder and she heard the Man’s voice near her ear.
“Woman, look in front of you.”
She opened her eyes steadily. There was a rectangular-like, stone box on the water, floating in their general direction. When it hit the sand, the top lid of the huge, what is now decided as coffin, slowly slid off and dropped on the white sand with a heavy thud.
The woman ran towards the stone coffin with her sword in hand and looked inside it in anticipation.
A figure of a youthful beauty laid inside. Her fair-skinned face was inanimate and her eyes, framed with thick lashes were sealed shut. Her body was covered in seaweeds and other organisms that hinted of being under the ocean for way too long. Lengthy, wavy black hair unfurled around the woman’s head in an unruly fashion.
Overall, the woman inside the coffin was an image of tranquility and only one person’s name appeared inside the Woman’s head as she stared down at the motionless princess, shocked.
She had been with the Woman and ruled alongside her many, many years ago until her abrupt disappearance after the war with Zhao Shi and the North broke out. Now, she finally knew who the prince of Panyu’s wife is and why he had been so vague with the Man and her.
*Only married women in ancient China secured their hair up in top-knots. Younger maidens usually have their hair down but still beautifully ornamented.
** An ancient poem written by To Huu, specifically for the story of Zhao Shi (Trong Thuy) and My Chau.