Chapter 15: I’ll never trade
Moxi got married?
I glanced blankly from Moxi back to the woman.
She happily got up when she saw Moxi coming in. At my presence, she immediately stopped and hesitated: “She is…”
I clung onto Moxi’s neck. “My name is Sansheng.”
Seeing her sad expression, I couldn’t help but also look at Moxi. Moxi, however, ignored the both of us. He strode to the bed, laid me down, removed my shoes and socks for me, and then got up and hastily wrote “ask for the army doctor” onto a piece of paper to hand to the other woman.
She froze for a while before finally smiling sadly and staggering out of the tent.
“Is she… your wife?”
He was cleansing my wound for me when I said this. He raised his head to look at me, a smile gradually rippling in his eyes. He gently shook his head.
I nodded and said sternly: “Good, because I won’t let you.”
With the same gentle smile, he pulled my hand and gently wrote onto my palm: “Besides Sansheng, I’ve never had anyone.”
I was surprised to see him write so seriously. I scratched my head and at length cleared my throat, putting on a mature mien while caressing his hair and saying: “You’re so dashing and I’ve been away from you for so long that I really wonder how many girls have lost their hearts to you. But you’re so cold and slow… I feel sorry for these poor girls. Is it a good thing that you’re like this or not, I wonder sometimes.”
At these words, Moxi stared at me with a slight chagrin.
Most of the time, I didn’t know why he was angry. This time, I didn’t know the reason either. Not wanting to bother guessing, I said, “But Sansheng has always been selfish. Your being unfriendly and indifferent to other girls… is more to my liking.”
“Moxi, have you drugged me with something? Why do I like you so much? Why am I so reluctant to let others touch you even for a tiny bit?”
He kept peering at me, his eyes gleaming bright.
At this time, the army doctor arrived. Moxi diverted his gaze and gave his seat to the doctor.
Since my wound was made from my own spell, it was only natural that the doctor couldn’t detect anything. He just announced that it was an external wound before bandaging it and taking his leave.
Having the space to ourselves again, I eagerly caught Moxi’s sleeve so I could complain to him about how much I’d missed him. I hadn’t even warmed his sleeve, however, by the time a soldier called for him from outside the tent.
Moxi’s face sank as he immediately got up and walked out. I watched his sleeve leave my hands, the soldier’s calling ringing into my ears. I sighed. Twenty years had really been too long of a separation.
Sansheng may still be important to Moxi, but she wasn’t the most important anymore.
The war would not stop just because the general had picked up a woman on the side of the road.
I saw Moxi very little after we reunited. With the coming of the last battle, there was a strange air hanging above the army, almost restless, almost unsettled, and almost charged, even. Moxi was so swamped that he didn’t even have the time to rest.
I didn’t care at all what the outcome of the war was going to be; I only cared about Moxi.
Recently, as I followed the rapidly marching troops, I had been pondering what it was Moxi could not seek as part of his trial. He was now a general. He had power, he had riches. What could he possibly want but couldn’t have?
Because we’d been separated for so long, I thought I should ask Moxi directly for an answer.
When night fell, I asked several night-watchmen before I was told Moxi had left the military campground with Miss Ah Rou.
Ah Rou was the woman I saw the other day. I heard she was Bai Jiu’s foster daughter and had been very close to Moxi since childhood. She was almost universally considered to be the general’s wife. After hearing that, I had faintly nodded and declined to comment.
But today, in the middle of the night…
I couldn’t help myself from feeling hurt. I quickened my pace and circled the camp for a long time before I at last found their figures in the forest.
Ah Rou was sobbing: “Moxi, how did it become this way, how…?” I halted, turned and hid behind a tree. “He is after all the master who raised you,” Ah Rou said in misery. “Why do you have to drive him into a corner? Do you want the kingdom that much?”
I froze at her words. I slightly stuck my head out to see Moxi indifferently extracting his sleeve from Ah Rou’s hand while writing something onto her palm. Ah Rou widened her eyes in surprise: “Moxi, are you mad?!”
Moxi stared at her quietly.
“Even though you two aren’t blood related, she is like your sister, your mother. You actually want to… you really want to…” Ah Rou suddenly came to realization: “The reason you want the throne… Moxi, you want to reach the top so that nobody can stand in your way? So that you can marry her?”
Moxi’s expression iced up. He wrote a few more words onto her hand and in the end left by himself.
Ah Rou stood in place for some time. She seemed to recover eventually, but when she took two steps, as if she had lost all her strength, she leaned on a tree and slowly slid to the ground. I thought for a little while before finally coming out. I offered her my hand, waiting for her to pull herself up.
She looked at me, startled: “Aunt… auntie Sansheng.”
I ignored the way she called me and said, “I already heard everything.”
Tears immediately pooled in Ah Rou’s eyes, delicate and pitiful. She cried: “Auntie, only you can persuade Moxi now. Please persuade him, please!”
“Why should I?”
If Moxi wanted the throne, I wouldn’t be the sole reason like Ah Rou said. He was the God of War; his heart would always think for the common people. No matter how he reincarnated, that duty and pride would always be ingrained inside of him.
He must have had his reasons for wanting the throne, but no matter what the reasons were, I had no right to persuade him to give up his goal.
Ah Rou was taken aback by my question. “Because, because… foster father… he will be ruthless to foster father, he…”
I sighed: “Moxi is too kindhearted to be ruthless to your father. But I can’t say the same for your father, Bai Qi.” I didn’t want to continue explaining to her. I pulled her up and said as I turned to leave: “It was my mistake to have left Moxi with you people all these years. None of you understand him. He must have not lived very happily.”
By the time I got back to the camp, I heard the sound of zither coming from Moxi’s tent from a distance away. Pleasantly surprised, I picked up my pace. I smelled the scent of plum blossoms the moment I lifted the curtain and stepped inside. The chords paused as Moxi looked up at me. Although he was smiling, his smile did not reach his eyes.
My heart ached, but I did not show it. I smiled and played the fool, walking around Moxi to give him a big hug from behind. I hung onto his neck, loathing to let go.
He slightly stiffened. I pressed close to his ears but did not speak, letting each other listen to the other’s warm rhythm.
I don’t know how long had passed before Moxi, as if finally recovered, gently patted my hand and motioned me to sit beside him. He took out a bough of plum next to the zither table and then wrote onto a sheet of paper: “I remember plum blossoms were your favorite. Today, I came across this flowering bough so I brought it back for you.”
I received the bough, held it in my hand and admired it over and over, inhaling the familiar scent.
“Do you like it?”
As if they were softly strummed, my heartstrings made a quiver when I saw the four hesitant words on the white parchment.
“I love it.” I took his hand and caressed the hard callous on its palm. “All the flowers in the world can’t be exchanged for the one you picked for me.”
He curled his fingers around my hand, clasping so tightly that it hurt me.
“Moxi, play a song for me. I always loved listening to you when you were younger.” I smiled: “I want to hear something exhilarating!”
Moxi gave a nod. His fingertips swept across the strings to weave a soaring melody. There was a murderous intent like that which swept across battlefields, there was an imperious spirit of world domination, and there was even a trace of retrospection from a hero who stood alone, all sonorously played.
The piece came to a crescendo towards the end, but in it was a certain vicissitude. The notes next quickened, as if every unspoken feeling was now being poured out. While the residual resonance was still lingering in the air, I suddenly asked, “Moxi, do you want the throne?”
His hands stilled the strings, bringing the unfinished reverberation to a halting stop.
He didn’t look at me, staring at the strings instead when he nodded.
I laughed and said, “Then fight for it. I’ll follow you.” I placed the plum bough on top of the strings, caught his right hand and whispered, “This time, I won’t leave you.”
After that night, Moxi became even more swamped.
On the day they would be attacking the imperial fortress and right before going to the battlefield, Moxi suddenly dismounted his horse and, in front of everyone, clasped me in his arms. Despite feeling uncomfortable by the hard armor, I didn’t push him away. I let him linger by my side like a child for a while before I patted him on the shoulder: “Don’t worry, go.”
But how could I let him go to the battlefield alone? If I had to guess, what Moxi couldn’t seek as part of his trial was the throne. If he was destined to lose the throne, then I could at least help him stay strong after his defeat. We’d find a quiet place and live in peace for the rest of this life.
By the time he finished his three trials, the three lifetimes he promised me would also end. From that point on, we’d go our separate ways. He’d still be a superior god in Heaven while I’d continue to be an undying spirit in the underworld.
A perfect arrangement, wouldn’t you say?
When Moxi’s figure went out of sight, I recited an invisible spell and trailed behind the army.
The last battle played out with little suspense. So hopeless was the emperor’s plight that the soldiers defending his city were merely putting up futile resistance. The siege was smoothly carried out with nary a hitch in the plan. Just past noon, Moxi led his army into the city straight to the palace.
A strange feeling told me things were going too smoothly.
As if to confirm my suspicions, a white solitary figure was standing on the palace wall waiting for Moxi by the time he arrived, looking down at him and his army from above.
He must be forty or fifty by now. For a mortal, it was a feat for him to still have the energy to kick up a ruckus.
He waved his sleeve at which time archers suddenly emerged on the wall. They drew their bows, all pointing at Moxi.
The troops were in a commotion – and so they should. Bai Qi was the rebel leader; Moxi was the general in command who captured the series of fortresses. Now that they almost reached the palace, the two men were suddenly at odds. Everyone must want to know what was going on.
Bai Qi brought out a man’s decapitated head from behind him and bellowed: “The tyrant has been beheaded! Comrades, we’ve won the war!”
After a period of silence, hundreds and thousands of soldiers erupted in cheering roars.
My gaze fell upon the figure on horseback. Bai Qi had beaten him to the beheading of the emperor and had therefore manipulated everyone into regarding him as the new ruler. I finally realized why he had gone back to the capital while Moxi was still in the front line of the battlefield. I reckoned it must have been for this moment.
Bai Qi waited for the soldiers to gradually quiet down before saying: “There are numerous people who want to rule this splendorous empire, but never did I expect that you would be one of those who stoop to treacherous methods for it!”
Though his voice was moderate, Bai Qi’s strong internal energy carried it to everyone’s ears clearly. His condemnation hushed the masses into silence.
“Moxi, you were eight when I took you in as my disciple. It has been twenty years since then. Everything I knew in life, I have taught you, but you have repeatedly sent people to assassinate me for this throne. I’m sorely disappointed. The tyrant has been removed on this day. It’s now also time to remove the disloyal and unconscionable student!”
I could only sigh as I watched the surprise in everyone’s expression. Despite being surrounded by a legion, his solitary figure on horseback made me feel a keen loneliness.
He couldn’t speak, so even if he were wronged, he could never prove himself.
At this moment, someone on the palace wall suddenly shot an arrow straight at Moxi. I panicked. Right as I was about to act, I saw that Moxi did not try to dodge but raised his bow instead. Before anyone could react, Moxi’s arrow had split the first in half. A cry instantly sounded from the wall – an archer had fallen.
The crowd was aghast.
Even I was a little surprised. I didn’t expect Moxi’s shooting to be so accurate.
“Don’t!” a sharp female voice suddenly rose from the rear of the army. A woman stumbled to Moxi: “Don’t! Moxi, don’t! No matter what, he was still the master who raised you! Moxi…”
Ah Rou’s sudden appearance spooked Moxi’s horse. Not a patient animal, it reared and looked as though it was going to step on Ah Rou with its hooves. Moxi pulled on the reins, but as if the horse were mad, he had no way to control it.
All the while, I had seen with my own eyes that someone had shot a projectile at Moxi’s horse. They wanted people to see him trample Ah Rou to death so that his wicked notoriety would become true. Anger burned inside of me. It was fine if my Moxi couldn’t seek the throne, but I’d never let you people harm him like this!
I waved my sleeve, sending forces of darkness straight at Ah Rou and pushing her several feet backward.
I showed myself and landed in front of Moxi’s horse. Drawing spiritual energy to my palm, I extracted the projectile from the horse and flung it back. That soldier grunted and fell over.
My unforeseen appearance affrighted everyone. They shouted ‘monster’ and kept backing far away, enclosing Moxi and me in a circle.
Moxi dismounted his horse and then grasped my hands. He was visibly angry as he hastily wrote onto my palm: “Go back.”
“By your side is where I need to be. Where do you want me to go?”
I thus asked, and Moxi momentarily had no answer to give.
I didn’t understand the expression brewing in his eyes. Suddenly, it occurred to me that even though I wanted to stay with him all my life, did he want the same thing? Would he still think about the throne and resent me later on…? I couldn’t be sure, so I turned and asked him, “Moxi, if I can help you seize the throne, but from now on there will be no Sansheng… if it’s Sansheng for the throne, will you trade?”
He stared at me, his eyes becoming increasingly bewildered.
At that instant, Bai Qi suddenly spoke: “Sansheng, you raised Moxi up like a sister, like a mother, yet he developed untoward ideas for you. Why do you still want to save him?”
Whispers rose around us. Moxi gripped my hand tightly. He was extremely furious, but he couldn’t look any colder. He stared at Bai Qi with a murderous intent that gave me chills. I patted Moxi’s hand to appease him and laughed when I suddenly got why Bai Qi had helped Moxi rescue me. He wanted me to become a pawn to control Moxi. He wanted to completely ruin him!
“Bai Jiu, there’s something I recently often wonder about. Had I not saved you because of Moxi’s kindheartedness back then, our lives may not have turned out this way today.”
A slight change came over Bai Qi’s face. Moxi lowered his head.
“But we can’t turn back time. Moxi and I had saved you, and here we are today. I have never liked you, probably due to a certain foreboding I have. You say Moxi returns favor with wickedness, but in my opinion you are the real betrayer! After you taught Moxi martial arts, you made him fight your battles. You get to be the leader while this child sacrifices his life for you. Now that he captures the fortress, you say he wants your throne and try to get rid of him. Bai Jiu, do you think you can just take advantage of Moxi’s inability to speak and make up whatever lies you please?”
“Humph! Demoness, cease your slanderous accusations!” He waved his sleeves as arrows flew at us. Moxi pulled me behind him to shield me.
I scoffed: “Even my slander is better than your bullshit.” Dark forces from my palm blasted the arrows away.
I still wanted to curse him out, but I all of a sudden felt something rapidly flying at us from behind. I whacked it to the side without paying much attention. Unexpectedly, that thing exploded.
Shit! My eyes blurred. I instinctively reached for Moxi’s hand to shield him but in my panic, I was unable to grab onto him. Then everything darkened as I felt a heaviness weighing down on me.
I heard popping cracks, and then warm liquid ran down my cheek, smelling of pungent blood. Realizing what it was, chills coursed through my trembling body.
No one answered me. In this life, he had never answered me.
After those sounds abated, the body pressing on top of me still didn’t move. My hands shook as I climbed out from underneath. When I saw what was happening, my mind instantly blanked.
The armor protecting him had shattered, countless needles pinning his back. For a second, I didn’t know where to touch him.
He lay face down on the ground, soiled with dirt. His shut eyes were no longer looking at me with tenderness, but he was tugging my sleeve the same way he had as a kid, afraid I would walk too fast and leave him behind.
My gaze dropped to my sleeve and the bloodstained words on it: “I’ll never trade.”
I smiled dazedly, suddenly realizing the stupidity of my question.
Moxi was dead.
Despite knowing he was just completing his trial and going back to the place I was only too familiar with, I still could not contain the grief surging from within. It drowned me. Now that he had finished his trial, gone was also our only connection.
It wasn’t possible to stay together any longer. There would also be no next life.
I buried my head into his cheek that had grown cold. Amidst the pungent bloody smell was a sudden burst of fragrance – the fragrance of plums.
I smiled to see a red plum flower falling out from his lapels, but desolation consumed my heart.
“Moxi, do you know why I like plum blossoms?” I whispered. “Because our fate had started with this muted fragrance. I like it only because I got to meet you.”
I only knew now why Moxi would become so angry every time he went to the underworld for his reincarnation. He was angry because I hadn’t known how to love myself, causing him this awful pain.
“The traitor is dead, capture the demoness!” someone shouted.
A terrible bloodthirst suddenly rose inside of me. Moxi had died. He and I would no longer meet. Without Moxi, what had I left to linger to? Yanwang prohibited me from killing, but these people had gone too far. So what if I killed them all?!
I was originally born at the Wangchuan River. I was born in the land of the dead. What was I afraid of? These mortals were ignorant of their own foolishness. Killing them all would leave this world a more peaceful place.
I looked up to Bai Qi, who was standing on top of the distant tower, and laughed. Like mournful cries of phantoms, my laughter carried in it a thousand years of darkness from the Wangchuan River.
How could any mortal survive this? Soon, horror wailed by my ears.
But I relished in this sound. I laughed more and more delightedly.
Hundreds and thousands of soldiers started bleeding from their seven apertures. I didn’t give a damn. I just wanted to mass murder so that streams of blood would wind around the palace and contaminate its air of awe.
Amid the screams, a sobering voice made its way to my ears.
I stopped laughing and looked around only to see it was Chang’an.
The Sansheng Stone’s tears of blood.
Chang’an seemed so wistful. “Sansheng, don’t give into darkness. Don’t develop wicked thoughts.”
Chang’an sighed: “Sansheng, please consider carefully. Slaughtering is against the laws of Heaven and Earth. You shall have to suffer the punishment of losing your soul. This is nothing but a trial. You are helping Moxi cross his trial but you’re destroying the cultivation you’ve accumulated for a whole millennium.”
“So what?” I chuckled. “I am a stone, and that is what I will remain even without my soul. It’ll save me from worrying about worldly things. What is so bad about it? These people have killed Moxi. I don’t care if it’s Moxi’s tribulation. The reality is that they’ve killed him. There’s nothing wrong with my wanting them to pay an eye for an eye.”
“Sansheng,” Changan’s expression was full of grief, “it pains you to lose Moxi, but these hundreds of thousands of people are also living beings. Like you, they have loved ones. If you killed them, what would their loved ones do?”
I stiffened, looking back at those people. Some were still struggling in agony, while others had stopped breathing altogether like Moxi, lying on the ground, quietly, motionlessly…
They shouldn’t have killed Moxi, but neither did I have the right to kill them.
The dark forces in my body dissipated. The horror in the vicinity also diminished to small sobbing sounds.
It suddenly occurred to me that these three lifetimes were but a happy dream Moxi had given me. Sooner or later I would have to wake up from it. Now that Moxi was gone, I was just waking up a little sooner.
“Chang’an, since you can look into Heaven’s will, strive for divine cultivation. You’ll find success in time to come.”
I went back to Moxi’s side, reaching for his hand and touching his already icy cheek.
If these three lives were now finished, then lets end here.
I slowly closed my eyes and severed my own veins.
My soul drifted away. This time, the Black and White Guards of Impermanence didn’t come to take me. In their place was the frigid judge working by Yanwang’s side. He made a stroke with the brush in his hand whereupon my wrists weighed down with an iron chain. “Sansheng, you’ve committed murder,” he said. “I’m here to take you back to await your judgment.”
I gave a nod and said nothing more in reply.