The First Arc: Blood Rain Reaching Towards a Flower
Chapter 16: Clothes Redder Than Maple, Skin as White as Snow
Xie Lian was startled to find that the young man, although slim and slender, helped him carry his enormous bag of scraps with calm and collected ease. He couldn’t help but feel a pang of guilt. San Lang strode forward, already steps ahead of him. Xie Lian made to follow, but suddenly remembered that the old cart driver was still lying unconscious in the cart. He doubled back and tapped him back to consciousness, and repeatedly warned him to not speak of anything that had happened tonight to anyone. Having witnessed his abilities, how could the old man dare to disagree with him? Vigorously nodding his head, he said he wouldn’t dream of it. The old man then pulled on the reins of Old Huang and hurried home.
What was left on the cart now was a rolled-up bamboo mat, which Xie Lian carried on his back. When he looked back again, San Lang was already making his way leisurely up the hill, single-handedly holding the bag of scraps that was slung over his shoulder.
Upon arrival, they stood in front of the crookedly sitting Pu Qi Monastery. San Lang dipped his head in a fit of laughter, as though he had seen something amusing. As Xie Lian approached, he found that he was looking at the ‘decrepit house, please donate’ sign. He coughed lightly and said, “See? This is it, and why I said you might not be used to this.”
San Lang replied, “This is quite alright.”
Previously, it had always been Xie Lian telling other people ‘it’s alright, it’s okay’. Today was the first time he heard those words spoken back to him, leaving him with an indescribable feeling. Pu Qi Monastery’s original door had long rotted, so Xie Lian took it down and replaced it with a curtain. Lifting a corner, he stepped forward and said, “Come in.”
San Lang followed close behind and entered.
The furnishings in this little wooden house could be taken in with a single glance. There was only a long, rectangular offering table, two small wooden stools, a small praying mat1, and a donation box. Taking the things San Lang had been holding, Xie Lian began unloading the things he bought: the fortune telling container, an incense burner, a calligraphy brush, paper and other miscellaneous items, before putting them in their appropriate places on the offering table. Lighting up a red candle that someone had offhandedly tossed him while he was collecting scraps, the room became immediately illuminated in light. San Lang casually picked up the fortune telling container and shook it before placing it down.
He asked, “So, is there a bed?”
Xie Lian turned around. He wordlessly set down the bamboo mat he had been carrying on his back and then showed it to him.
San Lang raised an eyebrow. “Is there only one?”
Xie Lian had only run into the young man when he was on his way back from the town, so naturally he hadn’t thought to buy another mat. “If you don’t mind squishing with me tonight, we can share?” He suggested.
San Lang said, “That works.”
Xie Lian took the broom and swept the floor again while San Lang wandered around the monastery. “Dao Zhang gege, aren’t you missing something in this temple of yours?”
Xie Lian had finished sweeping and was crouching down on the floor so he could lay out the bamboo mat. Hearing this, he asked as he spread the mat out, “I think besides followers, there shouldn’t be anything else that’s lacking.”
San Lang also crouched down, one hand supporting his chin as he asked, “What about the imagery of the god2?”
It was only because of his reminder did Xie Lian abruptly remember that he had actually forgotten the most important item– the god’s image!
A monastery without the god’s image would not be a monastery at all. Although he himself was the god here, he couldn’t be expected to sit on the offering table everyday.
After mulling it over, Xie Lian found the solution, “Earlier, I had purchased a calligraphy brush and some paper. I’ll draw a portrait to hang up tomorrow.”
To draw a portrait of himself, by himself, for himself to hang in his own temple, if word of this was to spread to Heaven, he reckoned he would probably be made fun of for another decade or so. But to have an accurate statue carved, would waste precious resources and time. So, between that and being ridiculed, Xie Lian would rather be made fun of for ten years instead.
Unexpectedly, San Lang spoke up. “Drawing? I know how, want some help?”
Startled, Xie Lian laughed and said, “Then I must first thank you. But, I’m afraid you might not know how to draw the Crown Prince of Xian Le? After all, almost all of his statues and portraits had been burnt eight hundred years ago. Regardless of the few that still remain, not many people would have seen them.”
Yet San Lang replied, “Of course I know. When we were sitting on the cart earlier, didn’t we bring up His Highness the Crown Prince?
Xie Lian did recall such an event. Indeed, while on the road here, he had said “you’ve probably not heard of him”, but San Lang had not replied. Now, hearing him say this, it was a bit surprising. Xie Lian finished spreading the mat. Straightening up, he said, “Could it be that San Lang, you really know of him?”
San Lang sat on top of the mat. “I do.”
This young man’s appearance and tone while speaking were both quite interesting. He often smiled, but it was hard to tell whether those smiles were genuine and sincere or in mockery of the other party’s intellectual disability. Throughout their journey on the road, Xie Lian had listened to him talk on everything under the sun, so he was rather interested in knowing the other’s appraisal. He seated himself next to the teen and asked, “Towards this Crown Prince of Xian Le, San Lang, what are your thoughts about him?”
The two of them sat face to face under the flickering flame of the red candles. With San Lang’s back towards the light, his black eyes were cast in the shadows, rendering his facial expression to be indiscernible. After a short while, he replied, “I think, Jun Wu must have really disliked him.”
Xie Lian didn’t think it would be this kind of an answer. A bit taken aback, he inquired, “Why do you think so?”
San Lang replied, “Why else would he be thrown twice from the heavens?”
Hearing this, Xie Lian smiled faintly, thinking, “Indeed the reasoning of youth.”
He lowered his head, slowly unfastening his sash while saying, “This, and whether to like or hate has nothing to do with one another. In this world, there are many matters to which one can’t simply explain it with just a ‘like’ or ‘dislike’.”
San Lang said, “Oh.”
Xie Lian spun around, tugging off his white boots before speaking again, “Besides, if one did something wrong, then one must be punished for it; the Heavenly Emperor was only carrying out his duty both times.”
With a noncommittal regard, San Lang said, “Perhaps.”
On his end, Xie Lian took off his outer clothes and neatly stacked the folded clothing, readying to place them on the offerings table. Xie Lian had wanted to speak more on the topic, when he turned his head and discovered how San Lang’s gaze was locked onto his foot.
That gaze looked bizarre. It could be described as ice-cold, yet it could also be described as scaldingly-piercing. It could be said as burning hot, yet it also emitted cool intent. Xie Lian tilted his head down to look and immediately understood. The young man was looking at the black, cursed manacle wrapped around his right ankle.
The first cursed manacle was firmly wrapped around his neck, while the second manacle tightly bound his ankle. The two manacles were both placed in inconvenient areas, with no way to hide them. In the past, if others were to ask about them, Xie Lian randomly made up an answer and said that they were necessary for practicing his art. But if it was San Lang who asked, the boy may not be so easily fooled.
However, San Lang only stared at his ankle for a moment and did make any more comments. Xie Lian also didn’t want to entangle himself on the topic and proceeded to lie down. The young man also obediently laid down beside him with his clothes still on. Guessing he was probably unused to sleeping on the floor undressed, Xie Lian thought to himself that he should really get a bed. “Let’s rest,” he said.
With a light blow, the red candle’s flame was extinguished.
The following morning, when Xie Lian opened his eyes, he noticed that San Lang was not lying next to him. Lifting his head to look around, his heart suddenly shook.
Unexpectedly, above the offerings table was a portrait.
The portrait was of a man clad in splendid clothing and a golden mask, wielding a sword in one hand and holding a flower in the other. The vigour in each brush stroke were excellent, and the colours used were exquisite. This was in fact a portrait of ‘The Xian Le Crown Prince who pleased the Gods.’
It had been many years since Xie Lian had last seen this painting, so he stared at it blankly for a while before finally getting up. After dressing himself, he pulled aside the curtain. San Lang was outside the monastery, resting in a patch of shade. The teenager spun a broomstick between his hands for fun whilst gazing up at the sky and looking infinitely bored.
The young man didn’t seem very fond of the sunlight. From the way he gazed up at the sky, it seemed as if he was contemplating how to yank down the sun and stomp it to mush. Outside the door lay a pile of fallen leaves, all neatly swept into a pile. Xie Lian went out the door and asked, “Did you rest well last night?”
Still leaning against the wall, San Lang turned his head and answered, “Not bad.”
Xie Lian walked over and took the broom from his hand. “San Lang, was the portrait in the monastery drawn by you?
“You drew it very well,” Xie Lian said.
Although he didn’t speak, the corners of San Lang’s mouth quirked upwards. Unsure if it was due to the way he had slept the night before, his hair seemed more lopsided and dishevelled than yesterday, complete with loose strands here and there; carelessly messy. But in reality, it was also very good looking. Carelessly dishevelled but not disorderly, it had a touch of charm. Xie Lian pointed to his own hair. “Want me to help you?”
San Lang nodded and went back inside the monastery with Xie Lian. When he sat down, Xie Lian untied his hair and held it in his hand, calmly and carefully examining it.
Even if the palm lines and fingerprints were recreated perfectly, ghosts and ghouls would always slip up on one part. A living person’s hair was numerous in numbers and rather uncountable, since each strand was so fine and distinct. Consequently, many ghost and ghouls’ fake skin ended up having hair that looked like a black cloud, or with strands glued together like strips of fabric. Or, they would simply just……forgo it altogether and just take on the appearance of being bald.
Last night, Xie Lian was able to confirm that San Lang’s fingerprints and palm lines existed and thus had initially let down his guard. However, when he saw the portrait this morning, he couldn’t help but feel slightly suspicious again.
How could a normal person know how to draw this painting?
But when his fingers gently stroked through San Lang’s hair, subtly examining it, he discovered the young man’s black hair was smooth and long without any abnormalities. After a while, perhaps because his actions were ticklish, San Lang laughed once. He slightly tilted his head and glanced at him from the corner of his eye before saying, “Gege, are you trying to help me tie my hair, or did you have something else in mind you would rather do?”
With his long hair down in a loose manner, it didn’t detract from San Lang’s beauty and instead added a devilish aura. The question seemed to be teasing. Smiling, Xie Lian said, “Alright, alright,” before he swiftly went about tying his hair.
Who knew, after he had finished tying his hair, San Lang took a look at his reflection in the water basin nearby before he turned back and raised an eyebrow at Xie Lian. Seeing his reaction, Xie Lian gently coughed again.
Before, his hair was lopsided. After retying and adjusting it, it was still crooked.
Even though San Lang hadn’t said a word and was just looking at him in this manner, Xie Lian still felt like it had been at least a few hundred years or so since he had felt this embarrassed. Dropping his hands, he was just about to say to San Lang ‘Come over here, let’s try again’ when suddenly, he heard a loud outbreak of noise coming from outside. Sounds of footsteps came from all directions, along with a few shouts of “Great Immortal!”
Xie Lian was startled upon hearing this and rushed outside, only to see many people blocking the front entrance to his monastery. Each one of them was red-faced with excitement. The village chief rushed forward and seized his hand before saying, “Great Immortal, to have a living god come to our village is really too wonderful!”
Xie Lian, “???”
The rest of the villagers had already surrounded him, “Great Immortal, welcome to our Pu Qi Village and for settling down here!”
“Great Immortal! Could you bless me and let me find a wife?!”
“Great Immortal! Can you bless that one family member of mine to hurry up and give birth to a child!”
“Great Immortal! I have fresh water chestnuts here! Do you want to eat them?! While you eat them, could you also bless me with a good harvest this year?!”
The villagers were all too enthusiastic, cornering him from all sides while forcing Xie Lian to continuously retreat. His heart was crying out bitterly. The old man from last night sure was big-mouthed. Despite plainly stressing the importance of not uttering a word, at the break of dawn the whole village already knew!
The villagers didn’t know which god the monastery was devoted to at the beginning, but they all firmly requested to burn an incense stick. In any case, no matter which god it was, a god is still a god all the same and praying to them wouldn’t do any harm. What Xie Lian had originally expected was that the monastery would be completely deserted without a single soul in sight and that throughout the year, there wouldn’t even be a handful of people who would approach his door. Therefore, he had only prepared a small bundle of spooled incense as a gesture of goodwill. Who would expect that this event could instantly sweep his entire stock clean? The little censer was filled full and thoroughly, densely packed with incense stuck haphazardly in all directions. The scent of incense permeated the air, and due to how long it had been since he had inhaled such a scent, Xie Lian actually choked on it a few times.
While choking on a few mouthfuls, he spoke, “Cough, fellow countryman, I really can’t bless you with wealth and treasures, really. Cough, please, by all means, don’t pray for wealth here! There may be unforeseen consequences….. I’m sorry, please don’t ask about marriage either…. No, no, I also can’t bless you in regards to bearing and raising children.”………
San Lang had also stopped minding his crookedly-tied hair and sat right beside the donation box, with a hand propping his chin and with the other lazily throwing chestnuts into his mouth as he ate. Several village women caught sight of him, their faces blushing over like crimson clouds before they asked Xie Lian, “Um……that, do you…….”
Even though he didn’t know what they were about to ask, Xie Lian’s intuition told him he had to stop them immediately, so he said, “No!”
With great difficulty, the crowd finally dispersed, leaving the offering table now filled with fruits, vegetables, and even white rice, noodles and other items. For better or worse, he had at last received a wave of offerings. Xie Lian swept out the litter that the villagers had left outside. San Lang followed him out, saying, “The incense is quite nice.”
Xie Lian swept while shaking his head. “Under normal circumstances, ten days to half a month would pass without a single person coming in for a blessing.”
“How could this be?” San Lang asked.
Xie Lian glanced at him, smiling, “Now that I think about it, perhaps San Lang’s luck has rubbed off on me a bit.”
As he said this, he remembered he had wanted to change the door curtain. Thus, tugging out a new curtain from within his sleeve, he hung it on top of the door. He took two steps back to look it over, when suddenly, he noticed that San Lang had stopped in his tracks. Xie Lian turned around his head and asked, “What’s wrong?”
Only to see San Lang staring at the curtain, a pensive expression on his face. Following his line of sight, Xie Lian saw that he was eyeing the spells written on the curtain.
This talisman was something he had casually drawn some time ago, and on it were spells upon spells, layering one over another. It’s defence was very strong. Its purpose was originally for warding off evil and it could repel the advances of any evil outside, preventing them from entering.
Yet, since this was written by Xie Lian himself, would this also work in attracting misfortune at the same time? There was no way of knowing. However, since the monastery didn’t even have a front door, it would be safer to have a row of spells drawn onto the curtain.
Seeing how the young man stood in front of the curtain, motionless, something stirred within Xie Lian, “San Lang?”
What if, by drawing this talisman, the teenager would be restricted at the door and prevented from entering?