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Wu Xi felt like he was having a deep, world-inverting dream. The dreamworld was way too lifelike; so lifelike, that everyone and everything inside it seemed to be real, making him unable to distinguish between reality and fantasy.
He dreamed of the day the rolling carriage traversed past the dense scenery of Nanjiang. Going down a very long road, he saw many people, then arrived alone at the most flourishing and beautiful place in the world — Fullmoon River, which flowed on endlessly for thirty li out, and had beauties singing and dancing both on and around it.
After that, he met someone. The other’s eyes roamed, looking to be even more nimble than the River’s light. His face always held a smile. He always had a means to live life in extreme comfort. He liked fine wine and fine people. He talked and worked with an easy calmness, never quarreling with anyone. Even so, he had many shortcomings about him; an off-beat, out-of-tune, discordant pair of silk pants.
Yet, when Wu Xi caught sight of him, he felt warmth about to thaw his heart.
He dreamed of a good many days of exceeding peace. The other man was unfashionably leaning on a reclining chair under a big tree, lazily squinting slightly as he leisurely explained some things that weren’t in the book, as if he had known them from birth. He didn’t even need to reference the manuscript, able to speak confidently while half-asleep, and would occasionally lift his hand to drink a cup of tea, an especially clean fragrance coming from his wide sleeves.
He also dreamed of the man’s warm palms, dreamed of him going through all kinds of emotions when he helplessly called him ‘you little toxin’, dreamed of him holding the sable in his arms while wearing that red thread with its ring faintly seen on his snow-white neck, dreamed of that night where blood was ignited for emotions he would die for.
Yet, those joys made him feel uneasy, like he faintly sensed that there was something amiss. Wide-eyed, he stared closely at the other’s smile, watching and watching as he felt panic arise within him. Then, the glowing features of the one before him grew paler and paler, paling until the veins under his skin could be seen. Then, the raised corners of his mouth lowered, his eyes getting more and more empty until lines of red blood seeped from the edges of his lips, landing drop after drop onto his snow-white robe.
Feeling like he was about to be scared to death, Wu Xi reached out to him, but couldn’t get to him, after which his foot fell on air. The entirety of his consciousness warping, only despair remained, etching into his core and blocking up his chest, like it was going to blow up his heart.
He abruptly opened his eyes, vision extraordinarily blurred. The sound of carriages was in his ears. He stared blankly for a short moment, unable to remember where he was, yet couldn’t resist placing a hand over his chest. The corners of his eyes were freezing; rubbing them, he was surprised to discover that he had tears all over his face.
“The Shamanet woke up! He woke up!” A loud-voiced person called.
In that instant, his mind produced a ridiculous notion — this was the road going to the capital, right? Everything just then had merely been his imagination, and hadn’t happened yet.
Soon, Ashinlae’s face appeared in his field of view, and he clumsily helped him up. “Drink some water, Shamanet.”
Wu Xi’s sight flitted over the fine wrinkles climbing out the edges of the other’s eyes, then flitted over his own adult hands. The thought he had within him, like a firework falling into water, slowly extinguished, ultimately leaving only a puff of ashes behind that flowed into the bone-chilling waves.
He silently drank half a bowl of water from Ashinlae’s hand, shut his eyes, and leaned against the mat behind him. There was white space in his head. He single-mindedly concentrated on understanding the ache coming from his heart — the ache that, wave by wave, was like his insides were being torn apart.
Jing Beiyuan… Jing Beiyuan… Jing Beiyuan… Jing Beiyuan…
Ashinlae and Nuahar watched him from the side, trembling and not daring to make any noise. They saw him reclining there, pressing at his chest with a wretched complexion, and sitting with his eyes closes for an incense stick’s worth of time. The rise and fall of his chest nearly couldn’t be seen, his thick brows tightly creased.
A long while later, he asked them, “Where are we?”
Ashinlae and Nuahar exchanged a look. “We’ve already passed Shuzhong,” Nuahar quietly answered.
Wu Xi nodded lightly, then said nothing.
Ashinlae impulsively opened his mouth in a desire to speak. Getting grabbed to a stop by Nuahar, he fiercely turned to glare at him, then continued with talking regardless. “Shamanet, when we were in an inn a few days back, I heard that the Northern Vakurah were soon about to reach the capital…”
Wu Xi opened his eyes and looked at him, their blackness seemingly covered in a layer of something. No longer were any of those formerly distinct emotions appearing on their surfaces, and Ashinlae realized that the look they had was somewhat unlike the Shamanet’s. Who was it like? It was like Prince Nan’ning’s, like the Great Qing’s Crown Prince; many things were going on inside him that others couldn’t make out, hidden deep down.
Even so, he continued to speak, straight-faced. “Shamanet, if you say the word, we’ll turn right around and head back!” He smacked away Nuahar’s hand that was trying to stop him, furious. “Don’t stop me! What about the Prince? Are the things he does necessarily right? From how I look at it, his head’s full of paste, too! Shamanet, let’s go back. Let’s go back to the capital and smuggle him out! Everything else can go piss off, no matter what. Later on, we’ll give the Prince a nice beating with a switch, and make him… make him…”
Wu Xi watched him apathetically. Ashinlae’s following words got stopped up in his throat. After that, the former said, clearly and briefly, “Spur the horses on quicker.”
Ashinlae and Nuahar were startled, hearing him go on. “Spur them back for Nanjiang. Don’t stint. Have our brothers work hard for a few days, since we need to get to Nanjiang as soon as possible, the faster the better… once I’ve gotten my breathing under control, find me a quick horse so that I can abandon this carriage.”
Ashinlae was agape for a long while. “Shamanet…”
Wu Xi had since shut his eyes anew, as if he had confirmed his decision, then spoke no more with him.
…Were the things the Prince did necessarily right? The man was certainly self-opinionated to that extent, at least. He always thought that he had everything planned out, and everything had to make sense. He meticulously planned his own road, others’ roads, the road of life, and the road of death stretch by stretch, never talking it over with anyone.
Jing Beiyuan was accustomed to casually, half-assedly admitting his errors at any times, but that was no more than him not feeling like wrangling with other people. When he genuinely resolved to do something, there was no margin for discussion at all, let alone other peoples’ comments. In his mind, what was he considered? A… child? Someone who needed supervision, needed to be taught, and was unreliable… just like how he himself had been towards Ashinlae?
Three shichen later, Wu Xi got on a fast horse, and galloped all the way at full speed.
He forced himself not to think about Jing Beiyuan, nor about the current situation in the capital, and solely focused on what was in front of him. On the surface, he was as serene as a pool of dead water.
He managed to condense the remaining near-month of journey into six days. He was alone on his route, having exhausted three horses to death.
In these brief six days, he mastered repressing his emotions, repressing his expressions, and repressing everything at a hard-to-imagine speed. He mastered keeping everything inside of him, only giving others a look at the things he wanted them to know about. He mastered sticking an unshakable pillar into his heart under duress, so that even if Mount Tai collapsed before him, he would still be able to handle it systematically.
The first time his life was suddenly lengthened was when Nanjiang had been defeated, and he had entered the capital alone to play the hostage. The second time it was lengthened was after being a visitor in a foreign land for a whole decade, witnessing and experiencing assassinations, head-bowing, a bizarre, gaudy, entrancing life of luxury, hair-raising conspiracies, and bone-deep yearning. And now, this current and final time, he broke through to a sudden change, completing his metamorphosis.
Leading along his group of alarmed Nanjiang warriors, they returned to Nanjiang like they were rushing down a road of death. Before, he had believed that he would have a plethora of feelings when he returned to this land, but right now, he felt nothing. Those emotions, he had repressed too harshly, and they had become sluggish; he was merely saving them, a bow drawn yet not fired.
He jumped off the horse. Before he brushed the dust of travel off of him, or even took a sip of water, the first thing he did was grab the collar of the one who came to greet him. “I want to meet with the Great Shaman! Immediately!”
The Great Shaman had since gotten old. His hair was entirely white, and countless wrinkles crawled up his thinned face, like they had been engraved with a knife.
The instant Wu Xi caught sight of him, he suddenly discovered that the Great Shaman no longer looked how he did in his memory, which caused his steps to pause at the doorway.
The Great Shaman lit up a tobacco pipe, slowly letting out a puff. He waved his slim hand to tell everyone to withdraw, and then only he and Wu Xi were left, mutually taking a measure of each other. The lock in Wu Xi’s heart loosened. All sorts of emotions — injustice, pain, indignance, melancholy, and longing — seemed to destroy the dike, yet he grit his teeth firmly and bore with it. He steadily stepped inside, knelt on the floor, then kowtowed to the Great Shaman once. “Teacher, I’ve returned.”
The Great Shaman sighed, stood up with the help of the table, and reached out, gathering the already grown-up child into his arms by his shoulders. Feeling that young, strong body that was brimming with power, his gaze went into the distance through the open doorway, surveying the remote mountain range.
“Ah, Wu Xi, Wu Xi…” he mumbled.
Wu Xi shut his eyes, thinking that his body had come home, but his heart was still lost on the outside.
For that reason, he gently struggled free of the Great Shaman’s embrace. “Teacher, I wish to beseech something of you,” he said, voice deep.
The Great Shaman said nothing, merely putting the pipe on his lips and silently dragging it. His eyes were as clear as they had been many years ago, as if they could plainly view everyone’s thoughts. When Wu Xi had gotten into trouble as a child, he had always feared that all-knowing look, but now, he suddenly found that he wasn’t afraid anymore. That was because he had discovered that, in this world, the number of things that could make him feel the emotion of ‘dread’ were truly not many.
“Teacher, when I arrived, I saw that the troops stationed at the Great Qing-Nanjiang border were in the middle of retreating. The northern Vakurah clan is currently warring with the Great Qing. I’m sure you know this.”
The Great Shaman sat back down cross-legged, nodding when he heard this. “What do you want to say, child?” he asked amidst a plume of smoke.
“I want to borrow troops from you and return to the Great Qing’s capital.”
The Great Shaman’s expression didn’t change in the slightest, as if this wasn’t at all unexpected. Following a short period of silence, he said calmly, “For a decade, we and the Great Qing have interacted harmoniously, and there’s some trade on the border. Their silk fabric and porcelain ware are quite good. When we marry here, the young men go to give betrothal gifts to the women, and a lot of them like to use the Great Qing’s beautiful silks and trinkets to invite favor in a lass. However, have you forgotten that the Great Qing is our enemy?”
Wu Xi shook his head. “I haven’t forgotten. I remember that when I was about to leave, I pledged to the Deity that I would definitely return, and would not forget my people in this lifetime. I would bring them to strike back, I would remember who had bullied us, and I would make them all die awful deaths — but I also remember that you didn’t respond to my words at all back then, and only told me to remember my clansmen and homeland.”
The Great Shaman pulled on his pipe, saying nothing.
“I also remember that you had said that Gazh was looking at everything from another realm. For many things, our lives are too short, and we cannot see them unless they’re right in front of us. I didn’t understand that then, but I know now that my thinking had been wrong.”
“What is it that you understand now?” the Great Shaman questioned, not batting an eye.
“Ten years ago, I felt that we should build up our strength, fight back, take revenge, and settle the score of our anger and hatred. But what happens once the settling is over? Another batch of brothers in the prime of their lives dead, causing their wives and parents to be heart-broken and suffering, and their children to forever pass that hatred down? I saw that many of our clansmen use Great Qing objects. They might remember what had happened back then, but they aren’t angry anymore. Wouldn’t it be painful to always carry enmity throughout one’s whole life? Isn’t the Great Shaman’s duty to let the people live better lives? Why bind them to fury for the sake of the past?”
The Great Shaman was quiet for a bit. “Your meaning is… that we should forget the past?”
Wu Xi shook his head again. “We shouldn’t forget. We still should build up our strength, and even draw support from the Great Qing’s strength to become formidable. Us neighboring would make those with vicious ambitions no longer dare to covet our land, and thus subdue them.”
The Great Shaman sized him up for a minute, then suddenly laughed. His laughter grew louder and louder until a puff of smoke got choked up in his throat, making him start to cough.
“Cough… good, good… Wu Xi, I said back then that it was time you ought to go see the outside world. You’re bright, but too stubborn. I’d been worried, but now, I can tell that you learned a lot in the Great Qing.”
Wu Xi smiled softly. “I had someone to teach me.”
The Great Shaman gave him a slightly surprised look. “Oh? Who?”
Wu Xi shook his head. He needed to focus his energy right now. Not going to think about that certain someone, he pulled the topic back. “Teacher, you still haven’t said whether you’ll allow me to take troops or not.”
The other got serious, placing his pipe to the side. “I have to hear your reasoning.”
“The Great Qing has suffered heavy losses at this moment, and won’t be able to recover from it in a decade or two’s time. We can take advantage of this opportunity to make ourselves even stronger, but I think that before we do that, we need to cast off our status as ‘the Great Qing’s vassal state’. The Great Qing is now in crisis and urgently needs reinforcements; this would be a good chance for negotiations. I’ll lead the troops there, and if the capital’s crisis can be solved, the city will be flooded with Nanjiang warriors when the time comes. I understand a bit of their Crown Prince, and he won’t disagree unreasonably.”
The Great Shaman narrowed his eyes, sitting up straighter. “Go on.”
Wu Xi did, unhurriedly. “The border can be opened up, as well, and I can even request that he make a path of convenience. Our side has dense forests and smog, which makes it hard for outsiders to attack, but also obstructs our own line of sight. Our brethren aren’t able to see the outer world their entire lives.”
His voice took a turn. “In addition, Teacher, you might not know this, but while I was in the Great Qing, the Emperor had three sons, all of which were fighting for the throne. In the end, I chose the Crown Prince; us being friends was out of the question, but we have no hatred, at least. That’s because he is a pragmatic person, and in the case that he becomes Emperor, he will be thinking of how to make his citizens’ lives better, not of how to leave his wise and powerful name behind in the history books. The Great Qing has undergone several centuries of steadily-growing prosperity from its founding to today; he isn’t muddle-headed like his father, so he won’t risk the idea of coming to attack us again.”
After listening to this, the Great Shaman nodded. “The Vakurah have copious ambitions. They want to annex the entirety of the Central Plains mainland, opening the borders to expand their territory… you have spoken correctly. The ruler that makes the world flourish and the ruler that broadens influence are not the same. The former hopes for even more stability and prosperity, while the latter has bloodthirst in their bones that hasn’t yet been quenched, hoping for even more land, and even more fluctuations.”
He looked at him, overgrown with emotions. “You’ve grown up.”
Wu Xi waited for him to nod, unblinking. The Great Shaman used a great deal of effort to stand up, and then turned and went into an inner room. Not long after, he walked out, holding a sceptre with both hands. Wu Xi’s eyes widened — that was the symbol of the Great Shaman.
The man walked over to be before him. “I’m old, Wu Xi. Nanjiang was always going to be handed over to you.”
Wu Xi opened his mouth, but didn’t know what he should say.
The Great Shaman bit his finger open, shakily drew a totem on the sceptre, and used his blood-stained thumb to press hard against Wu Xi’s forehead. “Accept it,” he said, voice deep.
Wu Xi automatically reached out, and the Great Shaman placed the sceptre into his hands. With strength that came from somewhere unknown, he pulled him up off of the ground and brought him to the entrance. Only then did Wu Xi discover that the dark land had since become full of people — nearly all of Nanjiang’s men, women, elders, and children were present. He clutched the sceptre, somewhat at a loss.
The Great Shaman grabbed his hand and raised it over his head. “From today onwards, Shamanet Wu Xi will inherit the Great Shaman’s sceptre of our Nanjiang!” he called out crisply. “Remember, all of you, that the messenger of Gazh will guide our people to great power!”
Everybody, simultaneously and without choreography, put both hands on their shoulders and bowed.
The Great Shaman got choked by the wind, starting to cough once more. Wu Xi quickly patted him on the back. “Teacher…”
The man waved him off. “You stated Nanjiang’s reasoning. What about your reasoning, then?” he suddenly asked in a whisper.
Wu Xi was taken aback. It was a long time before he answered. “It’s for the sake of… the one holding my jade ring.”
The Great Shaman laughed without sound. “I’d really like to meet them.”