The last two chapters were very much Yue's chapters as we delved into some of her reflections into the meaning of her existence and what she does as a Moon Maiden. For this chapter, we get to see Yue in Hsiao's heart.
Chapter 10: The Silent Protector
I followed Yue who swayed slightly tipsily towards the open balcony at the side of the Grand Hall. I quickly caught one of Yue’s arm when he stretched forward with one of his hands as if he wanted to grab the moon.
Yue laughed as the moonlight shone down on him. Bathed in the golden glow of the moon, Yue did not seem like he belonged on earth. I tightened my grip on Yue, as if he would float away from this place if not for me anchoring him down.
“Hsiao, isn’t the moon beautiful tonight?” Yue smiled.
“Yes, it is,” I said as I leaned on the balcony beside Yue.
Yue turned to me and whispered in my ear, “I know you think it’s crazy for me to challenge General Tie Shi to stay seven nights at the Holy Xue Mountain. But, it really isn’t since I planned to lose to General Tie Shi from the start.”
Yue paused and leaned back, “I suppose to show some effort, I should stay at least three nights.” Yue brightened up, “Well, I plan to stay around the base of the mountain and find some cave to hide away.”
Yue furrowed his brows, “I can’t hunt though,” Then he turned to me, “Can I send Xiao Bai out to you so that you can bring food for me at night?”
Yue froze, “Oh, but you don’t know any martial arts. Hmm… maybe I can sneak out from the mountain for a few hours each day to forage some food or…”
“I can bring food for you,” I said firmly.
Yue brightened up, “Are you sure?”
I nodded, the less Yue walked around the Holy Xue Mountain the better.
Yue gave me a pleased smile, “That’s good. Did you know that I challenged General Tie Shi in the first place because of you?”
“Because of me?”
Yue nodded, “His heart had a maroon coloured thread because he was in love with Princess Bai Ying but didn’t dare to tell her. He came to my chambers to tell me all these good things about her, it made me sad that he had to matchmake away the person he loved.”
I frowned, maroon coloured thread?
“So, all these is because of you,” Yue said, he suddenly frowned and held his forehead.
I kneaded Yue’s forehead, “You drank too much again.”
Yue shook his head, “I hardly drank.”
A young maidservant came from the Grand Hall and asked, “Is Gentleman Yue alright? Does Gentleman Hsiao need any help?”
I smiled at her, “I’m used to this.” As Yue closed his eyes and leaned his head on my chest, I carried him up gently.
I laughed softly to myself as I carried Yue away with him still murmuring my name.
The next morning, as I expected, Yue woke up with an especially heavy head. I passed Yue a ginseng soup that I had asked Yue’s maidservant, Xiao Shuang, to prepare and Yue reluctantly drank it.
He opened up his eyes after he finished and smiled, “Wow, this soup is amazing. I feel much better.”
“That’s good, because you are expected at the base of the Holy Xue Mountain in about half the time of the burning of one scented incense,” I said dryly.
Yue opened his eyes in alarm and quickly got off the bed.
I shook my head and pointed to the table, “I have prepared your winter coat, a good scabbard, some sparklers, meat buns and a water gourd.”
Yue patted my back, “Hsiao, you are ever dependable.”
“Yue, you are ever hopeless,” I replied as I showed Yue how to use the scabbard.
Yue widened his eyes at how sharp the scabbard was, “That looks pretty dangerous.”
“How sharp your scabbard is will be the least of your dangers on the Holy Xue Mountain,” I sighed.
“Don’t worry,” Yue smiled confidently, “I know what I’m doing.”
“That’s what I worry,” I said.
With that, Yue was bundled up in his winter coat and we made our way to the base of the Holy Xue Mountain. General Tie Shi was already there, with a determined glint in his eyes.
Princess Bai Ying appeared to be telling General Tie Shi something, and he shook his head.
“Greetings to Princess Bai Ying and General Tie Shi,” Yue cried, clearly not having read the atmosphere.
Princess Bai Ying turned around surprised and she nodded her head in greeting towards Yue and me. She asked hesitantly, “Are you certain of doing this, Gentleman Yue?”
Yue smiled confidently, “I have never been more sure.”
Princess Bai Ying nodded her head, her eyes tinged with a slight worry, but she lifted her head upwards and declared, “I now announce the start of the Holy Xue Mountain Challenge between Gentleman Yue and General Tie Shi. We will return here in seven nights. May the Holy Ginseng Sprite bless these two men!”
I pulled Yue back before he made his way up the Holy Xue Mountain, “Send Xiao Bai to me immediately after you have found your cave.”
Yue nodded his head with a reassuring grin.
I watched Yue’s back worriedly as his small figure made his way up the treacherous mountain. I looked to my right, and saw Princess Bai Ying’s eyes flicker between the backs of General Tie Shi and Gentleman Yue with uncertainty.
At first, I was extremely confident of making my way up the Holy Xue Mountain. However, Hsiao’s constant refrains to stay alert and safe did make me extra concerned, so I held the scabbard in my hand as I trudged up the snowy mountain.
I wasn’t too worried that I would hallucinate on the Holy Xue Mountain, after all that should only affect mortals right? However, after trudging around aimlessly for a while, I started to realize why men could go mad on the Holy Xue Mountain. The strange silence of the mountain, the never-ending white expanse, after a while, one would start to doubt one’s sanity and grasp of reality.
“Xiao Bai!” I cried to my trusty white bird, “Can you sense a cave around here?”
Xiao Bai whistled and I followed Xiao Bai as he flew into the forested area that I was trying to avoid. In no more than a hundred steps, Xiao Bai whistled towards a dark cavernous opening.
“Good job,” I told Xiao Bai as I crouched towards the opening. I paused, what if it was a dangerous animal’s lair?
I decided to take out one of the buns that Hsiao packed for me and threw it in the cave. I didn’t hear anything. Hmm, this should be safe?
May lady luck, the goddess of luck be with me! Just to be extra safe, I held the magic sun bead that Xi Yang gave me and nervously trudged into the opening. I wasn’t sure how to use the sparklers, and Xi Yang’s magic sun bead was even better because it sparkled regardless of the conditions.
Under the glow of the magic sun bead, Xiao Bai and I entered the opening. To our relief, this was a small buttonhole cave and there was nothing in it but a meat bun.
I quickly spread some animal poison at the opening of the cave and was careful to make Xiao Bai aware of the poison (though Xiao Bai being a spiritual animal will likely be unaffected). I decided against using a shrouding spell in case Hsiao won’t be able to find me.
I untied the cloth bundle that Hsiao had packed for me, spread out the cloth, sat down on it and started to eat the meat buns. I passed Xiao Bai one of the meat buns but Xiao Bai only looked disdainfully at it.
“Fine,” I frowned at Xiao Bai who has been spoilt by Hsiao, “You can go find Hsiao instead and he will feed you your favourite sunflower seeds.”
I recalled that Hsiao told me to immediately built a fire in the cave when I reached, but I felt very tired. I curled up on the cloth and yawned. I smiled to myself as I thought of how worried and paranoid Hsiao was in the morning as compared to his usual indifferent self, and started to fall asleep.
I felt something poke my head. I rose up in shock, and my eyes met Hsiao’s.
I sheepishly grinned at Hsiao, “Welcome to my humble abode.”
Hsiao frowned, “Why didn’t you set up a fire? Your forehead is so cold. What if you froze to death?”
I heard the crackling sound of fire, and realized that Hsiao had already set up a fire in the cave. I also noticed that he had brought thick blankets, which he had set down on the floor of the cave. There was also a big wooden basket and several water gourds by its side. I sniffed the water gourds - they smelled like plum wine.
I gleefully went towards the wine gourds, but Hsiao caught them first and lifted them up in the air.
“You can only have them if you promise to only ever drink alcohol with me,” Hsiao said firmly.
I frowned, “Why?”
“Because you have the worst alcohol tolerance and I don’t want to bear the sin of letting a drunk Yue loose onto the innocent population,” Hsiao said as he dangled the wine gourds up in the air as if I was a cat and the wine gourds were mice.
I huffed, “Fine, I promise!”
Hsiao smiled and passed me one wine gourd.
It was then I noticed that the ends of Hsiao’s robes had stains of blood. I furrowed my brows, “Blood stains?”
Hsiao laughed, “Oh, I stained my robes when I went to the kitchen to steal food for you.”
Something did not feel right, but Hsiao quickly passed me some roast chicken, and I promptly forgot about it.
I watched as Yue started to yawn after finishing one wine gourd and the roast chicken.
“You can sleep,” I said gently, “I will watch the fire.”
Yue shook his head stubbornly, “What if you start to hallucinate after I fall asleep? It’s better if we talk to each other.”
I laughed and took out my flute, “How about I play a song for you?”
Yue’s eyes brightened up.
In no more than the time taken to drink three cups of tea, Yue fell asleep from the lullaby I played. I carefully placed a blanket over Yue and swept away the hair that fell over Yue’s forehead.
It was just in time too as I heard the faraway howls of wolves. Probably, members belonging to the pack of the wild aggressive wolf I had killed this morning.
I gave Xiao Bai a look to watch over Yue, and walked out of the cave.
I felt a nudge on my shoulder, and blearily opened my eyes. I saw Hsiao and asked surprisedly, “You are still here?”
“It’s about morning now,” Hsiao said. “I will return to the Xue Mountain Palace and get more food for today. You are not allowed to go out of this cave until I am back, ok?”
I shook my head, “But what if I have to settle my business?”
Hsiao pulled me up, “Well, then you just have to do it now before I leave.”
I glared at Hsiao as I reluctantly trudged to the bushes outside and Hsiao stayed several bushes away. It was not as if Hsiao was much stronger than I was but yet I could never go against Hsiao when he was firm.
“Good,” Hsiao said as he watched me return to the cave, “Remember not to exit the cave!”
I nodded my head as I watched Hsiao walked away. Only then did I notice that the ends of his robes seemed even redder than yesterday, and his back seemed especially forlorn.
Did he not sleep at all last night? I did not know why but my heart seemed to tighten around my chest.
On the third evening, Yue beamed, “Finally, we can leave this place tomorrow.”
I looked at Yue’s slightly rounder face and smiled, “I think you are the only person to have ever grown fatter on the Holy Xue Mountain.”
Yue’s cheeks flushed, “Well, you must help me slash my robes before I go down tomorrow morning so it will look convincing. Although the rumours of the dangerous animals must be exaggerated, because I have not seen any predators ever since I have been here.”
If you did, it would mean I had failed. I nodded at Yue, “It’s probably much safer at the base.”
“Pass me your flute,” Yue said.
I looked surprised. Yue nodded eagerly, “You have been playing for me the last two nights, I thought I could play a song for you in return.”
I arched my brows, “You know how to play the flute?”
Yue nodded, “I learned a very simple song from my Uncle once. He is an incredible player, even better than you!”
I smiled and passed Yue my flute, actually I was even more surprised that I did not mind lending Yue my flute since I generally disliked people touching my personal things.
“Be prepared to be amazed,” Yue said and started to play.
After a few minutes, Yue stopped and looked earnestly at me, “How was it?”
I paused for a moment. Then said, “If I had heard you play before, I would not have given you the scabbard. I don’t think anything could be as dangerous as you with a flute.”
Yue scowled and hit me on my shoulder, “So much for being grateful!”
I laughed and took the flute from Yue, “Now, let me return the favour instead.”
I watched as Yue slowly fell asleep again under the soft melody of the moon lullaby. “Sweet dreams,” I said as I spread the blanket over Yue again.
Sometimes, I wondered how General Tie Shi was doing. There was something strange about the Holy Xue Mountain that brought one’s inner demons alive. The nightmare that I was trying to escape throughout my journey came back stronger each night. But, every time when it got to the point where I could not breathe, I would hear rustling sounds from Yue or Yue’s soft breathing and everything became fine again.
It was true that ever since I traveled with Yue, the nightmare has also lessened.
I opened a wine gourd and gazed at the very light strands of moonlight that landed at the opening of the cave.
Has it already been ten years? I closed my eyes. Only ten years ago, Big Brother Qing (晴- clear and cloudless) and I were as close as brothers could be. Mother had entered the palace first and Father fell deeply in love with her and made her the Empress. Mother and Aunt were twin sisters and so intimate that Mother had brought Aunt into the palace and Father had made her his head concubine. They were both pregnant at the same time, and Big Brother Qing was born first.
Father couldn’t decide if I, the son of the Empress, should be made the Crown Prince or Big Brother Qing who was the first-born. So, that decision was left aside.
Perhaps that was when it had all changed.
I could still pinpoint that pivoting moment in which so-called love turned to hate.
We were both eleven and playfully hiding from our tutors in Mother’s inner chambers. Suddenly, Mother entered with Aunt following her behind. We stayed silent behind the screens as they had tea. Aunt suddenly took out a straw bag and placed it on the table.
“Sister,” Aunt said, “Everytime a concubine got pregnant and died mid-way through her conception, I closed my eyes. But, I found out that the same poison that had killed Concubine Mudan was being placed in Qing Er’s food. Sister, how can you be so cruel?”
Mother slowly finished her tea and placed the cup down carefully, “If I wanted to kill Qing Er, why would I wait eleven years?”
Aunt did not answer as she started to spoon the powder from the straw bag into her cup of tea. Spoonful over spoonful was poured into her cup until the tea started to overflow. “Sister, both of us know that I cannot live much longer,” Aunt said, “Promise me that you will take care of Qing Er when I leave.”
Mother looked at Aunt with a smile on her lips, “You first accuse me of poisoning Qing Er, and now you want to place him in my care?”
Aunt replied firmly, “Promise me with the price of this cup of tea.”
I couldn’t see Mother’s expression as Aunt started to drink the cup of tea. Big Brother Qing rushed out from behind the screens towards Aunt.
“Niang (娘 – mother)!” Big Brother Qing cried as he tried to push the cup of tea out of Aunt’s hands.
Aunt looked surprised at Big Brother Qing’s presence. She started to cough furiously and Big Brother Qing cried for the maidservants standing outside.
Mother and I watched silently as Big Brother Qing and Aunt’s royal maidservants carried Aunt out.
“母后 (Queen Mother),” I said hesitatingly as I looked at the straw bag on the table.
Mother scooped one teaspoon of the powder and placed it in her tea. I looked on in alarm as she then drank it down in one swoop.
“It is not poisonous,” Mother had said sternly, then her eyes fell sad, “But it is true that your Aunt has not much longer to live.”
I never knew what misunderstanding or perhaps understanding had gone on between Mother and Aunt. The Imperial Doctors had examined Aunt later and pronounced that Aunt was not poisoned, but her immunity and liver were weak. Big Brother Qing never spoke to me again after that --- whether he believed that Mother had really poisoned Aunt or him, or that the Imperial Doctors were actually lying, I would never know.
A year later, Aunt passed away and Father decreed that he would name the Crown Prince on our twenty-first birthdays. It seemed that this was Aunt’s wish.
I felt agitation and bitterness rose in my heart as I remembered of Big Brother Qing’s rejection of my reconciliation attempts and how he kept sending assassins after me even after I had left the palace. He did not believe me when I said I did not want the throne.
Suddenly, I heard some murmurings from Yue and I woke up from my trance. There was some saliva dripping from Yue’s mouth and he was murmuring, “Hsiao, can you get me more meat buns?”
I laughed and I got up. I had fallen asleep for too long, and the predators must be roaming.
I looked at Yue one final time before I left the cave and smiled, “I know that following you will only lead to trouble, and yet I worry what would happen to you if I don’t.”