Chapter 11: Remember Thus, Your Solemn Promise
Howdy! I'm Moonblossom and I'm doing chapter 11 for Once Promise. Readers of OP will like this chapter. Firstly, it is long. Secondly, Shao Hao and Qing Yang both made an appearance! Although they are not the main leads, there is something about them that is just... awesome? Even though I like Chi You, I can't help but be captivated by the aura of the two men.
Before I delve into the chapter, I would like to mention the title of this chapter. It was taken from a prose - Song of Golden Tower. Gift to Liang Fen - by Qing Dynasty poet Na Lan Xing De (纳兰性德) as an ode to his good friend. Since most of this chapter is about love and not friendship, these six words are more a poetic expression of an important promise, but what a nice, poetic ring especially when you get to the end of this post! Here is the original prose and translation.
It roughly translates to:
Song of Golden Tower. Gift to Liang Fen
I am once an arrogant youth.
My involvement in court affairs was but a result of my noble birth.
I once have dreams to lead capable men to contribute to our country, but no one understands.
I do not believe in fate until we become good friends today.
While we are still not too old, let us wipe away our tears.
Lift our wine cups; lift our spirits; drink our fill.
Since ancient times, it is not uncommon for leaders to be surrounded unkind rumours or be hurt by them.
Let this trouble not our hearts and let us let go of the hurt with a smile.
By chance today we meet and become good friends.
Even if we are to meet a thousand trials, let our friendship remain firm.
Our friendship in the future will likely take place in our next lives.
A heavy promise like this, my friend must remember!
- Moonblossom -
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After being imprisoned by the Jade Mother for sixty years, Ah Heng finally got to roam the Vast Wilderness again. This time, her identity was not the bold and brash Xi Ling Heng, but as Master Xi Ling, a healer. Master Xi Ling did not charge his patients for treatment but if the patient recovered, he would request that the patient’s family pray towards the direction of Mount Shen Nong twice daily.
Everywhere he went, Master Xi Ling would hold classes to impart his medical knowledge, regardless of the attendee’s status or wealth. Not only did doctors benefitted from his classes, Master Xi Ling found that his medical skills had improved through the sharing. Although there were some doctors who remained skeptical of Master Xi Ling abilities, especially when he hem-and-haw through basic questions when he could answer complex questions, overall, his reputation spread with the increasing number of people he helped.
Six years went by and one day, Master Xi Ling arrived at Yun Zhou city in Gao Xing. In the morning, he had a medical forum with the local doctors and in the afternoon, attended to patients. His clinic was just a mat on the floor, but many people – be they poor beggars in rags or rich folks waiting in sedans – queued up orderly outside the mat. Several doctors whom he met in the morning offered to help out, and emulated him by setting up mats besides him.
At a hill slope opposite them, the Second Prince of Gao Xing - Xi Long - surveyed the scene in front of him with the mayor of Yun Zhou city. The mayor suggested Xi Long to persuade Master Xi Ling to join his camp. Besides the doctor’s ability, he should be from the ancient Xi Ling family, who although were dwindling in numbers, were related to the other three major families by marriage.
Thinking of the people’s support towards his brother Shao Hao, Xi Long smiled and started towards Master Xi Ling. Declining the mayor’s offer to clear a path for him, the crowd parted naturally for Xi Long when they saw the noble-looking youth. When Xi Long saw Master Xi Ling, his first impression was that of a young man dressed in green. His looks were ordinary but his calm and gentle manner have a way of putting people around him at ease.
Master Xi Ling was startled when he saw Xi Long. As the Second Prince of Gao Xing, he could not be here to seek medical help since he owned a stableful of doctors. Xi Long nodded politely to Master Xi Ling which the latter reciprocated, before returning his attention to his patients. Xi Long was not offended and waited patiently at one side.
When darkness fell and whoever was in the crowd had no choice but to go home, Xi Long walked up to Master Xing. “Sir, my surname is Chang and I greatly admire your chivalrous spirit. Would you honour me by joining me for dinner tonight?”
Master Xi Ling replied politely. “I am tired after a long day and I need to rest as I still need to tend to people tomorrow.”
Xi Long: “If that is the case, I will invite Sir again after you have finished your work.”
Over the next three days, Xi Long would arrive early at his clinic and would wait quietly at one side for Master Xi Ling. While waiting, he would also help to group patients according to their ailments and direct them to queue for different doctors who were good in that area, thereby improving the overall effectiveness of the consultation. When the last person has left, Xi Long once again walked up to Master Xi Ling. “Tonight, Gao Xing is celebrating our Light Festival and I would appreciate it if sir can join me for feast prepared in your honour.”
The other doctors had formed a good impression of this young man who has helped out for the last three days and encouraged Master Xi Ling to take a well-deserve break when the latter remained silent. Finally, Master Xi Ling accepted the invitation.
The dinner was held at an exquisite gallery on a boat. The food was tasty and serving maidens were all pretty with alluring figures. Whenever the maidens brought up a new dish, they would announce the names of each dish in their sweet voices, which added a charming ambiance to the dinning experience.
Master Xi Ling praised “Indeed, one cannot claim to know the meaning of coquettish if one has not yet visited the South.” Contrary to his smile, he was mentally on guard and could not taste any of the food. The more polite Xi Long was, the more nervous he got. Thanks to her interest in Yun Sang and Nuo Nai, Ah Heng knew a little about the rivalry between Shao Hao and Xi Long and knew that Xi Long was not a simple character. Looking at the southern beauties before her, Ah Heng was reminded of Yun Sang and Nuo Nai and she wondered once again if both were alright.
Some time back, Ah Heng had written to Yun Sang to ask if the latter wanted her to look for Nuo Nai when Ah Heng was in Gao Xing, but Yun Sang has declined saying that she could not think of anything else now. Ah Heng knew that the situation in Sheng Nong was very delicate and ‘mental exhaustion’ was probably too mild to describe what Yun Sang was going through now, between taking care of her sickly father and assisting her brother.
Xi Long could tell that Master Xi Ling’s mind had drifted elsewhere and offered to play a tune to help sooth his spirits. When it came to playing the qin, Xi Long was probably the best player in the land and seldom played for pleasure, much less playing for someone else, so this was a rare honor indeed.
As she listed to the beautiful music, Ah Heng privately thought to herself that Xi Long indeed live up to his reputation. As the notes flowed harmoniously over her, she felt herself relaxing and she started paying attention to the beauty surrounding her. Many people had placed floating lanterns onto the river for the Light Festival, and she saw many flower-shaped ‘blooms’ along the river as their boat sailed past.
The sight reminded Ah Heng of another festival that would be held in Jiu Li next month. Soon, she thought, the flowers would soon cover the mountains of Jiu Li and her thoughts drifted to Chi You. Year after year, they have met under the peach blossom tree. Although each meeting was short, the happiness from seeing him always lingered long after they have parted.
Suddenly, the coarse sound of a mountain flute shook her out from her reverie. One of the strings on Xi Long’s qin broke and his face darkened as he gestured for the boat to dock ashore.
They disembarked and Xi Long started to explain the meaning behind different kind of lanterns to Master Xi Ling. Lanterns that were shaped like lotus flowers symbolizes peace and heath; peach blossom lanterns symbolizes wishes of a good marriage; lanterns shaped like a date symbolizes desire for children, lanterns resembling tortoise-shells were for wishing longevity to their parents, so on and so forth…
Making use of the crowd, Master Xi Ling walked further and further away from Xi Long until he could no longer see him. He knew what Xi Long was trying to do and since he could not oblige, it was better to leave. Just as he was congratulating himself for shaking off Xi Long, he heard a sound from the nearby shrubs.
“Who is it?”
A handsome young man in white sat on the branch of a nearby tree. He was holding a wine gourd in one hand and looked like a relaxed immortal lounging among a bed of flowers. So Shao Hao was here. No wonder Xi Long’s tune could be disrupted so easily.
Shao Hao smiled “Is sir here to admire the lights?”
“Actually, the best place to view the lights is not on the river.”
“Pray tell, where would the best place be?”
A gigantic bird landed in front of them as Shao Hao pointed to the sky. “If one wants to see the stars in heavens, one should view them from the land below. To see the stars on land, naturally you should view them from the skies above.”
After a moment’s hesitation, Master Xi Ling mounted the bird before him. Shao Hao got up behind him and the giant bird rose to the sky.
Gao Xing was a country with many rivers and lakes. The Light Festival was one of the biggest festival and nearly every family would make lanterns to be released into the water. As the bird soared higher, the lanterns and lights slowly merged into a river of light. Flickering and twinkling, they gleamed like stars until they seemed to form their own Milky Way that was no less breathtaking than the constellations in the sky.
Xi Ling was stunned. “This feels surreal. Am I in heaven or am I still in the mortal realm?”
Shao Hao smiled as he took at the sea of stars below. “I see this every year and every year, I remain in awe just like the first time I saw it.”
“How did this tradition comes about?”
“Legend has it that many years ago, a beautiful young woman parted with her lover who left to fight a war in a faraway place. When he never returned, she was saddled with grief and she started placing lanterns on the rivers, hoping that the lights would guide him home. One day, her lover did return with his last breath having followed the lights. Another legend has it that there was once a fierce monster who terrorized a village. A brave youth offered to kill the monster and perished with it. His mother was grief-stricken and wandered along the river day and night, calling his name. To console the poor mother, the villagers started placing lights on the river.”
“Which legend do you believe in?”
“Neither. I believe that each light is actually a star.”
Shao Hao gave an embarrassed laugh. “My mother died shortly after I was born. My old nanny used to point to the stars and told me that my mother has not left, but has turned into a star, protecting me from above. At first, I believed her and I would tell all the happy or sad happenings to the stars, believing that Mother would hear everything.”
“But during one particularly bad setback, I realized I have been fed a load of rubbish when I saw my younger brothers hiding behind their mothers back while I was left alone to be bullied. I told my old nanny that I no longer believed her and she was very sad. She brought me to see the lights and the scene was just like tonight. The whole of Gao Xing was lit up like a sky full of stars. Pointing to the lights surrounding us, she said ‘Can you see? These are all the guardian stars!’.”
Looking at the lights below him, Xi Ling thought he understood what Shao Hao was trying to say. Each lantern symbolized a wish and the sea of stars beneath him was akin to the cummulation of hope for countless youth, solders, mothers and sons, just like a guardian protecting what he held dear.
Smiling, Shao Hao introduced himself. “I am Shao Hao of Gao Xing.”
This was a famous name in the Vast Wilderness and Master Xi Ling stared at him unbelievingly for outing his identity so soon.
“I always believed every doctor has something or someone whom they wish to protect. Can Master Xi Ling share with me what or who is it that you wish to protect?”
Ah Heng was silent. Although Shao Hao could not see through her guise, he did manage to read her mind. Before her powerful father and Eldest Brother, she was too small and powerless, which was why she had chosen to study hard in medicine.
Shao Hao did not press her for an answer and continued with a smile. “Master Xi Ling’s ability to heal is like the flame that lights up the lanterns of numerous maidens and mothers, bringing them happiness and hope. On behalf of all the maidens and mothers in Gao Xing, I would like to invite you to stay and help protect them with me.”
Master Xi Ling could feel his heart skipping a beat. Shao Hao was so calm and yet so firm when he said the words. His faith was unmovable like a mountain. Although she feared him at some elemental level, she could feel respect for him at this point in time.
Shao Hao smiled again. “I know this is a major decision and will not press you to answer now. Since you will still be in Gao Xing for some time, please let me know of your decision after you have considered. Regardless of your answer, I am already grateful of your visit and would welcome your visit to Gao Xing again.”
Master Xi Ling could only nod his head. The giant bird brought them to a little courtyard. Before he could reject, Shao Hao has dismounted and pushed open a door to a reveal a room full of books. “These are the medical books I have collected over the years which I hope could be of use to you.”
Master Xi Ling was sorely tempted and picked up a book. When he turned around, Shao Hao has already closed the door and left. Although he liked to leave as well, he could not resist the lure of the books and started to read.
Over the next few days, Ah Heng studied the books diligently. Shao Hao never came by again and she could almost believe he was not there except for an occasional whiff of wine which clued her to his presence. One day, she was reading when she smelt a particularly fragrant Dian wine of the male variety. She decided to check it out but could not find anyone when she went to the courtyard.
Just when she was feeling miffed, a voice floated down from the roof. “Have you finished reading?”
Ah Heng tilted her head and saw Shao Hao lounging on the roof, one hand propping his head, one hand holding a wind gourd. There was a bright moon behind him and under the silver light, he was like an wine immortal. She replied. “Soon. What is it that you are drinking?”
“Dian wine of the male variety. Do you want to try some?”
Ah Heng took a cautious sip from wine gourd and pretended to be a poor drinker. “I do not know that there are male and female wines.”
Shao Hao smiled as he looked at the sky as if in remembrance. “I learnt this from a friend who shares the same love of wine as me.”
Her heart skipped a beat at his words. Ah Heng sat down besides a stone table and tried to look curious. “What kind of person is worthy of being the wine buddy of the infamous Shao Hao?”
Shao Hao continued drinking and took a while before replying. “An interesting person.” Staring into the night, he continued. “I wonder if that person is also drinking at this very moment while listening to some story.”
At her silence, he shook his wine gourd at her. “Do you still want some?”
So the two of them started drinking and chatting, with one on the roof, one on the ground. Although Ah Heng knew that Shao Hao was after the same thing as Xi Long, he came across as less pretentious and more sincere. If she was only Master Xi Ling, she would probably have deflected to his camp already. At midnight, Ah Heng was afraid she might give herself away if she stayed on and she made some excuse to retire.
When she was washing up the next morning, she saw a swarm of silkworms in her room forming the words ‘return with haste’. Her face turned white as a sheet as her towel fell to the floor. When her heartbeat returned to normal, she stepped out of her room and found Shao Hao in the courtyard. He was looking at the retreating back of a messenger bird and his face was uncharacteriscally solemn.
What news would rock both Xuan Yuan and Gao Xing at the same time? Deep in her heart, she was afraid she knew the answer and her heart turned heavy.
Shao Hao turned to her. “I had originally intended to accompany sir around Gao Xing but something urgent has popped up and I need to return home immediately. I am sorry that I have to leave first but I will instruct my men to escort you to where you wish to go next.”
Ah Heng replied. “No thank you. I too have some personal matters to settle and I was about to bade you farewell too.”
Shao Hao nodded and smiled. “Please take care. I am really looking forward to meeting you again.”
Ah Heng gave a helpless smile. “I am sure we will meet again.”
Shao Hao did not linger and once he left, Ah Heng summoned Ah Bi and Lie Yang to leave for Xuan Yuan. Turning her head in the direction of Shen Nong, her thoughts drifted to Chi You. How was he? Was he alright?
When she reached Chao Yun Peak, Qing Yang was there to bring her into the hall. Inside Chao Yun Hall was the Yellow Emperor and her mother. The Yellow Emperor has not been inside Chao Yun Hall for several hundred years, but he looked young and strong like the last time he was there. In contrast, Lei Zu was white-haired and wrinkled opposite him. If one did not know of their identities beforehand, it was hard to believe that these two were actually husband and wife.
Qing Yang bowed to them and stood to a side. Next, Ah Heng bowed “Royal Father and Mother, Heng’er is back.”
The Yellow Emperor bade them to join their table and Qing Yang served the tea for the table. Ah Heng clinged to her father’s arm and half-sassed, half testing the waters. “Royal Father, why are you here? Are you not busy today?”
The Yellow Emperor smiled “No matter how busy I am, I must still think of your marriage.”
When Ah Heng looked at her mother, Lei Zu continued “Your Royal Father wishes to settle a date for your marriage with Shao Hao.”
The world turned black for Ah Heng and she quickly steadied herself. “Royal Father, I do not wish to get marry yet.”
The Yellow Emperor continued drinking tea as if he did not hear her. Qing Yang poured more tea and asked pointedly “Do you not wish to marry yet, or you do not wish to marry Shao Hao?”
Looking at his chilly expression, Ah Heng felt her heart cooling in response “I wish to play around for a few more years, why are you in a hurry to marry me off?”
Qing Yang said “Had it been normal times, it would not have been a big deal. But things are different now.”
“And how is it different?”
“The whole world knew that the Yan Emperor has shut himself in a secluded spot to make medicine, but we have received news that he is gravely sick. We think that there is going to be a new leader in Shen Nong soon.”
Ah Heng clenched her fist. Although she had guessed that the Yan Emperor’s condition had worsen, it was still hard to hear the news.
Qing Yang continued “For the past few thousand years, there have been skirmishes between us and Shen Nong at our borders. With a new Yan Emperor at the helm, it is only a matter of time before they launch an attack on us. Shen Nong is centrally located and rich in resources. Not to mention that our army is very young compared to the ancient gods of Shen Nong. However, if we form an alliance with Gao Xing, the outlook will become more positive for us.”
Ah Heng glared at Qing Yang “You keep talking about Xuan Yuan and Shen Nong, what about me?”
Qing Yang remained expressionless “You are the Princess of Xuan Yuan and this is your duty.”
Ah Heng turned to the Yellow Emperor “Royal Father, you have always doted on me. Could you let me accompany Royal Mother and yourself for a few more years since I really do not wish to marry right now?”
The Yellow Emperor said “It is not that I do not wish to indulge you but we have received news that Shao Hao will be coming to Xuan Yuan in a few days to officially propose. I could indulge you in other things but you have to listen to me on this.”
Ah Heng swept the food and wine to the floor and dashed out of the hall “Fine, since you all like get married, go get married yourself. I am not going to marry anyone!”
The Yellow Emperor turned to Lei Zu “See what you have done with your doting! Does she still respect me? If she tried to leave the mountain this time, I will punish her severely!” He got up and left with his guards.
Lei Zu found Ah Heng thinking under the Phoenix Trees outside. “Why do you not wish to marry Shao Hao? Although I have never met him, Qing Yang and Chang Yi liked him so I thought he should be a fairly good match. Or do you already like someone else?”
Ah Heng saw Qing Yang glaring icily at her behind her mother’s back and could not get the words out. In her mind, she recalled the scene when her brother pushed a sword into Chi You’s heart and she swallowed. “I…. I do not like anyone else. I merely wish to remain single for a few more years.”
Lei Zu said softly “All girls must get married one day. As the Princess of Xuan Yuan, a lot of things are beyond your control, not to mention destined, even before you are born. You should not be afraid. In fact, you may even regret dragging your feet after you have gotten married. When Shao Hao is here in another two days, I will arrange for you to spend some time with him alone. Perhaps you will be able to understand my words then.”
Ah Heng nodded but she was looking at Qing Yang.
Later that night, Ah Heng was staring out of her window. Although she was tired, she did not feel the least bit sleepy. Ah Heng thought of Chi You again. Tomorrow was the Flower Festival in Jiu Li and he would be waiting for her under the Peach Blossom Tree. If he did not see her, he would not leave. Keeping the Beauty Preserving Flower she was toying with, she called for Ah Bi and Lie Yang and prepared to sneak off.
When the trio rose silently into the sky, Ah Heng found Qing Yang waiting for her on his winged ride.
“Where are you going?”
“It is none of your business. Get out of my way.”
Ah Heng tried to fly past him but Qing Yang created an energy ring without even changing his stance. Ah Bi tried a few times but he could not fly out of the circle.
Ah Heng took her Beauty Preserving Flower and created a maelstrom of peach blossoms to cut at her invisible cage. Qing Yang finally raised one hand and the swirling petals condensed into a pink rope which coiled itself around Ah Heng. Ah Heng waved her flower and tried to escape while Ah Bi tried to bite on the rope to deflect. Trying to help, Lie Yang breathe a fireball which distracted Qing Yang.
Qing Yang yelled: “Beast! Get out of my way.”
Lie Yang replied by spewing another fireball - this time three foot in height. Qing Yang was surprised to see Phoenix Fire and reassessed this unassuming-looking bird who is smart enough to hide his true powers.
His ride was a ferocious, five-coloured Chong Ming bird. When it heard the Phoenix cry, it triggered the ingrained respect for the king of birds and slowed down. Seeing her chance, Ah Heng shook off the rope binding her and shouted for Lie Yang to leave.
But Lie Yang was angry at Qing Yang for scolding him and did not listen. Seeing Ah Heng getting away, Qing Yang decided to kill the dumb bird, otherwise, his Chong Ming bird may hesitate when chasing after Ah Heng. Forcing his ride to fly through the ring of fire surrounding him, Qing Yang gathered his energy. When Ah Heng saw the white flash of energy shooting from Qing Yang’s hand, she did not have time to get Ah Bi to turn around and reacted by flying towards Lie Yang. Although she managed to push Lie Yang away with her energy, she was hit squarely in the chest by Qing Yang and started to fall.
Qing Yang face was white as he pushed his ride to plunge and manage to catch Ah Heng. When Lie Yang saw that Qing Yang has injured Ah Heng, he gave a furious scream as he morphed into firebird, dashing straight at Qing Yang.
Qing Yang cradled Ah Heng with one hand and got ready with his free hand to kill the trouble-making bird when it came nearer.
“Big Brother!” Ah Heng cling on to his attacking hand at the same time she coughed out blood to his chest.
Qing Yang retracted his hand and created a gigantic silk web instead to trap Lie Yang. Normally, a silk web should not be able to counter phoenix fire, but because this web was woven by Lei Zu, plus it contained Qing Yang’s powers, try as he might, Lie Yang could not extract himself.
Qing Yang turned to check his sister’s injuries. He was deeply grateful he only used forty percent of his strength and since Ah Heng was wearing a silk vest woven by their mother, it probably deflected most of his power so Ah Heng should not be too badly injured.
Making use of their close proximity and Qing Yang’s attention on her injuries, Ah Heng twisted suddenly in his arms and jabbed him with the poison from her Beauty Preserving Flower. When he was frozen into immobility. Ah Heng climbed happily onto Ah Bi and smiled to Qing Yang “Big Brother, do enjoy the view of the stars for a while. Although the peach blossom poison is quite lethal, I doubt it can hold down Xuan Yuan Qing Yang for long.”
Qing Yang glared at her “Since you know I am Xuan Yuan Qing Yang, you should also know that there is no other god in the world who can wound me this easily. If you are not my sister, would you have the chance? Yet you did this to me for some other man. Is he really worth it?”
Ah Heng felt guilty at his words “Big Brother, I do not wish to hurt you but I really do not wish to marry Shao Hao.”
Qing Yang “You think you can escape? Remember what Royal Father has said - if you sneak off, he will punish you severely!”
Ah Heng gritted her teeth and pushed Ah Bi to fly towards Jiu Li. “Big Brother, I am sorry.” She had made a promise to Chi You and no matter what comes, she will go and meet him!