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Matchsticks and blackened dreams

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It was easy in the beginning, easy to pretend everything was as it was before.

Shi Qingxuan tried his best to ignore the constant aches from his broken limbs. He plastered a smile on his face and limped through the streets of Imperial City, singing and telling fanciful stories of heavenly officials and their adventures.

He never earned much money with his tales, but he was popular with children. They often left him sticky pieces of candy, bits of colored strings, and shiny rocks. Worthless trinkets. He accepted them all with a gracious smile.

He wished his leg wasn’t broken; he could’ve done anything on two healthy legs. He could’ve delivered goods, waited tables—anything. He wished even more that his arm wasn’t broken, he could’ve at least earned a real living as a scribe, a craftsman, or even some sort of teacher.

Instead he limped along, smiled, and told stories until his voice grew hoarse.

He always managed to scrounge up enough food to keep the hunger at bay.

For the first time, he understands how He Xuan must’ve felt. The endless hunger. He could now understand why He Xuan sat down at every feast and ate like a starving beast, snapping at anyone who got in his way.

He would gladly do the same now too.

Shi Qingxuan did well in the beginning—his tales were new and entertaining. The summer heat made the residents of Imperial City slow and lazy, eager for an excuse to take a break and fan themselves while listening to his stories. He gathered a large crowd at first and earned enough to buy freshly made food from street vendors.

But the year went on and his stories begin to repeat. The weather changed and winter approached. Street vendors began packing up their stalls.

“Oh, we come from outside the city for just the summer,” said the female stall owner who let Shi Qingxuan set up next to her. One of the few who didn’t chase him away like unwanted vermin. “We return to our home villages for the winter and spend that time making goods for the next year.”

“But what about the store owners in the buildings?” Shi Qingxuan asked desperately. “They stay don’t they?” Before his false ascension, he lived in an area with a much warmer and temperate climate, a place where cities didn’t just shut down during the winter.

The stall owner laughed “Oh they’ll stay of course. That’s when they do their best business.”

“Ahhh, it was an excellent haul this year,” said another stall owner who was dismantling his current stand, he was a baker who made meat pastries. Sometimes he gave away his burned scraps to Shi Qingxuan. “Old Wind, it was thanks to you bringing in all those crowds here, I’ve never sold this much before.”

Shi Qingxuan waved off his thanks with a forced laughed while hiding a steadily growing sense of unease. How was he going to survive the winter? With his crippled legs, he had a hard enough time dragging his body between the dilapidated shrine he shared with all the other beggars and his regular spot between these two vendors. He couldn’t exactly walk off to warmer climates.

He couldn’t just leave either. He Xuan dropped him here for a reason.

The stall owners soon had their stalls dismantled and loaded in wagons. Shi Qingxuan forced down his apprehensions and plastered another false smile on his face. He waved the stall owners goodbye and watched them make their way towards the city gates, leaving the once bustling streets oddly deserted.

And Shi Qingxuan found himself alone.

Again.


“We suffer and endure, and hope for a quick spring,” an old toothless beggar said grimly in response to Shi Qingxuan’s query when he asked about the winter.

We suffer.

Suffering again. It seemed suffering truly was Shi Qingxuan’s lot in in life.

It was what he deserved after all.

The weather grew colder and residents no longer lingered in the streets looking for amusements. Instead, they hurried from buildings to building, trying to avoid the winter air.

Imperial City didn’t receive much in the way of rain and snow, but that didn’t make the growing cold any easier to bear. It was dry cold that pulled all moisture out of the air, drying skin and causing it to crack. The cold sank into Shi Qingxuan’s very bones, causing his injured arm and leg to ache painfully.

At first, Shi Qingxuan had stayed in that run-down shrine with several other beggars. While some were like him, crippled and unable to earn a real living, most had something wrong in their heads.

Some reminded him of the demented maniacs He Xuan collected back on his island. The ones cursed with such vile fates they became little better than animals.

Sometimes he wondered how things would’ve been different if his brother had listened to him and exchanged his fates with one of those maniacs.

Shi Qingxuan kept a wary distance from them.

But as the cold grew stronger, he found himself without the luxury of staying aloof. He ended up huddling for warmth with the other beggars, shuddering in fear as some of their hands wandered in the dark, pinching and plucking at him. It reminded him horribly of Black Water Island.

He’d banish these thoughts away in the morning, he had to go out every day to earn his next meal after all.

Like the stall owners said, life in Imperial City didn’t just stop when winter came about. People found refuge in buildings—in restaurants, teahouses, and other houses of entertainment.

Unfortunately, unlike the street vendors, these establishments didn’t welcome the likes of Shi Qingxuan. Even if he cleaned himself up, he could never afford the clothes that could make him pass as a normal person. And even if he could clean himself up to try and pass as presentable, innkeepers and restaurant owners looked at his crooked arm and legs in distaste. They leaned away from him—as though being near him would curse them with the same injuries—and spoke about how they didn’t want to disturb their customers.

Shi Qingxuan remembered all the times in the past, when his eyes would also slide away or look past cripples. How his brother would rush him past poorer areas and try to prevent him from seeing too much.

Nevertheless, he accepted each reaction with another false smile and thanked the owners for their time.

In the end, he managed to work out a deal with one enterprising merchant. The merchant would provide Shi Qingxuan miscellaneous wares to peddle and Shi Qingxuan would limp around the city, selling what he could. At the end of the day, he would return to the merchant with whatever was left, and they would split his earnings.

The earnings never amount to much. The merchant would always take his half and Shi Qingxuan, exhausted and sore, left with just enough to feed himself for another night.

It was still better than nothing, and with winter approaching, he needed every coin. So Shi Qingxuan hobbled from businesses to business—fighting the pain of his swollen and aching joints—and ran himself ragged trying to sell whatever excess goods the merchant had.


On another freezing grey morning, the merchant had tossed him a bag while grunting, “Here, these should sell well today. Come back tomorrow with what you have left, I’m closing early tonight.”

Shi Qingxuan opened the bag to find several neatly wrapped packages of matches. He immediately understood.

Today was the day of the Dongzhi festival, the longest night of the year, and many families would be visiting their ancestral tombs to pay their respects before returning home for a feast. On a day like this, many people would be lighting incense and burning paper money, and they might need matches.

With a nod, he shouldered the bag and headed off towards the direction of the city’s cemetery.

The cemetery was located on a small hill just outside Imperial City. Shi Qingxuan limped past houses, markets, and eventually through the city gates. He joined throngs of people who were all off to pray and make offerings to their ancestors.

Once through the gates, he followed the crowd and slowly made his way up a steep stone staircase that led through the cemetery, leaning heavily on his crutch.

By the time he made it all the way up, his legs were shaking in exhaustion and his armpit ached painfully from where the crutch kept digging in. He looked around as he gasped for air, trying to regain his breath.

Stone tombs dotted the hillside, some more lavish than others. Families had spread out their offerings before the tombs.

Shi Qingxuan stared wistfully at the praying families.

I wish I could burn some for brother. He thought enviously. He remembered when they were young, Shi Wudu always made an effort to pray to their parents every holiday. They continued to visit their parent’s tombs even after they’d ascended, but their visits grew more infrequent with each passing year.

Up on the exposed hill, the wind was stronger, whipping the scent of incense away. Shi Qingxuan found an empty but open area and laid out his matches for people to see.

Instead of calling out his wares loudly as he usually did, he sat in a respectful silence, letting families approach him as needed. He made a few sales right away, selling to a few forgetful families who forgot to bring something to light their incense with.

The day went on, and the weather grew colder. Shi Qingxuan felt the cold cutting through his thin robes. He shivered miserably and huddled deeper inter his clothes, tucking his hands in further. The skin on his face and hands was painfully cracked—he wished he’d had some sort of oil to moisten it with. His nose burned and his ears were red and aching with cold. He ducked his head downwards and tried to keep his ears covered by his unkept hair.

Fewer families showed up and eventually people stopped coming by to buy matches. Shi Qingxuan finally gave up—it was almost evening; most people were probably busy preparing their feasts. He lurched to his feet began making his slow and painful descent back towards the city.

His face didn’t betray the despair that was in his heart. After exhausting himself and tracking all the way out of the city and up the hill, he’d barely made more than his average. He would only have enough left over to buy a plate of meat buns that was more dough than meat, and a small bag of coal for the small battered brazier shared by all the homeless. The winter was brutal, no matter how much he ate, and how much fuel he burned, he was always left feeling cold, tired and hungry.

As he made his way his careful way down the stone steps back down, his eyes caught sight of a single stick incense that had somehow rolled to the side. Shi Qingxuan’s eyes lit up and he carefully bent over, leaning cautiously on his crutch and picked up the stick of incense.

He brushed it off carefully and tucked it into his worn robes.

Maybe I can light this for brother!

That had been one of his biggest regrets, that he had never had the chance to pay proper respects to his brother. With his heart much lighter, Shi Qingxuan continued down the rest of the stairs.

It was evening now, and only a few liquor shops remained open. With a tired sigh, Shi Qingxuan forced himself to at least go inside and try to make more sales. The journey up to the cemetery had exhausted him, but he still had some time before all the stores shut down for the night. Maybe if he made just a few more sales, he’d had enough to save up for a warmer wool cloak.

He arranged his expression into a pleasant smile and pushed open the door to one such shop. He was instantly stopped by a suspicious waiter.

“What do you want?” the man asked, frowning at Shi Qingxuan’s ragged robes and gaunt, disheveled appearance.

Shi Qingxuan forced a bright smile and held up a packet of matches. “Good evening mister. Would you be interested in buying a few matches tonight? It is Dongzhi festival today, perhaps you’ve been too busy to pay respects to your family.”

The waiter frowned even harder. “Where did you get those? Steal them?”

Shi Qingxuan signed internally. It was a common question. He gestured to his broken arm and leg and gave another disarming smile. “Hahahahaha, no I’m afraid that’s impossible for me. I have an arrangement with a merchant for this.”

At this, the waiter relaxed and stepped aside. “I have my own lighters, but feel free to ask around. Just don’t disturb them too much.”

Shi Qingxuan flashed a tired smile and limped inside. The smell of wine was strong and he sniffed appreciatively, wishing he could just have a taste.

He asked a few customers inside, but the irritable drinkers inside had no interest in anything but their wine cups. It wasn’t unexpected, people who wanted to celebrate were already at home with their families. The sad drunkards here all had no family to return to or simply didn’t want to go at all.

With a sigh, Shi Qingxuan left empty handed.

It was the same elsewhere. Nobody else wanted to buy, and he finally gave up on making any more sales.

He left the final wine house and slowly turned towards the direction of his shared shrine. It was finally night, and the temperature had dipped dramatically.

It’ll only get better from here on out. Shi Qingxuan tried to console himself as the cold struck him. After tonight, the nights will get shorter and shorter. You just need to bear it.

The rags he tied around his feet to protect him were barely keeping the cold out. Shi Qingxuan leaned heavily on his crutch and tried to quicken his pace to try minimize contact the freezing ground.

He staggered up street and tried not to sniff the scents of cooked food coming from inside the houses.

It didn’t work, his mouth was salivating, and he couldn’t help but remember the feasts he had back when he was Wind Master.

Back when he stole someone else’s life.

The smells of frying dumplings, hot oil, and sweet smell of tangyuan filled the air. His stomach growled uncontrollably and Shi Qingxuan’s entire body felt faint with hunger.

I can wait until tomorrow. I can’t afford to spend the money now and lose that merchant’s trust. He told himself stubbornly. He’d gone many nights without dinner before, one more wasn’t going to make a difference.

Yet he just felt so tired. Walking all the way up to the cemetery was really too much for him.

Shi Qingxuan’s world suddenly spun and the leaned heavily on his crutch, waiting for the dizzy spell to pass.

It wasn’t an unusual occurrence, probably the exhausting trek up the mountain combined with the scent of so much delicious food was causing it.

Maybe if I just sat down for a little bit.

His entire body felt as if it was weighed down by lead. Perhaps he could take a short break before he dragged himself back to the run-down shrine.

Shi Qingxuan looked around and spotted a small pile of straw between two houses. He limped over and sagged down heavily, drawing his knees up to his chest.

It was truly a freezing night, Dongzhi festival took place on the longest night of the winter after all. The wind was biting, cutting through his clothes to freeze him. His body began to shiver uncontrollably. Shi Qingxuan huddled into himself miserably and tried hard to not focus on the cold. It didn’t work, his teeth began to chatter harder.

I need to get back up. His mind thought dully. He knew what was happening, the cold was getting to him. Slowing him down.

But after sitting down, he just didn’t have the strength to get back up.

Shi Qingxuan gazed at the packet of matches he’d carried around all day. Perhaps…just this once he could light some of the matches to keep himself warm.

With a shaking hand, he carefully unwrapped one of the oiled packets and struck a match against the wall. He cradled it awkwardly with his broken arm and held it close to the chest.

It was warm. He gazed at the lit flame and blinked in surprise. He saw…

He saw a table filled with food, a feast. A feast just like he’d experienced every year at the Mid-Autumn festival. And seated at the table was Xie Lian.

Forgetting the cold completely, Shi Qingxuan smiled at the sight of his old friend. Was he by himself?

He raised his hand towards his old friend, trying to call out to him like he did back at the Mid-Autumn festival then, but nothing happened.

Shi Qingxuan blinked again, and the vision vanished. All he saw was the burnt remains of the match in his hand.

Without thinking, he struck another match and held it close again.

The vision returned. This time Xie Lian was no longer alone, he was sitting next to Hua Cheng in front of the feast. The two of them sat closely together, and Shi Qingxuan could only see their lips move as they smiled and spoke to each other. The warm affection they held towards each other was clear as Hua Cheng wrapped his arm around Xie Lian, and Xie Lian leaned comfortably into Hua Cheng’s side.

Shi Qingxuan’s smile returned. So, they were finally together. It was good to see his friend finally acknowledge Hua Cheng’s feeling after the Ghost King had chased after him so persistently.

Shi Qingxuan couldn’t stop smiling at the sight and strained his ears to try and hear what they were saying. No matter how hard he tried, he could only hear muffled indistinguishable sounds. Just as he thought he could make out their voices, the match burned out and the vision vanished again.

He reached back into the packet and hurriedly struck another match. He wanted to see more.

The vision returned, but this time another figure appeared at the table and Shi Qingxuan’s smile vanished.

He Xuan.

He Xuan appeared as he saw him last, wearing dark robes and a pale expressionless face. He sat across from Hua Cheng and Xie Lian, eating his food with a single-minded intensity.

In the past, Shi Qingxuan had huffed at his friend’s actions, not understanding what true hunger was.

Now he knew, and now Shi Qingxuan understood. They’d never been friends. They never could’ve been friends.

The cold forgotten, Shi Qingxuan watched the three figures eating together and a bitter realization started to set in.

I see.

This was how things should’ve been—Shi Qingxuan never had a place there. He was the false Wind Master, and He Xuan should’ve been the rightful one. In his vision, it was merely He Xuan reclaiming his rightful place.

The rightful place I took.

His heart began to ache. All the joys he’d felt when he was in heaven, he was not deserving of them.

He continued watching them eat, ignoring how his body was growing numb. Xie Lian tried to say something to He Xuan, but he was ignored. Hua Cheng leaned closer and said something into his royal highness’ ear and gave a laugh. He Xuan looked up for a quick moment, irritation evident on his face, but then returned his focus back to his food.

Shi Qingxuan stared on hungrily, his frozen skin numb to the tears tricking down his face. He wished with all his heart he could join them, wished he could join his old friends and feast and laugh and joke together.

But he didn’t deserve to.

The vision started to fade away and Shi Qingxuan was growing aware about how cold and numb his body was feeling.

No.

He reached out mechanically and struck a fourth match.

This time, the match flared and the vision returned, much clearer than before. Shi Qingxuan stopped shivering—he really couldn’t feel the cold anymore.

His field of view had expanded, and he could clearly see it was taking place at the banquet hall in Hua Cheng’s Paradise Manor.

His mind grew lightheaded and his thoughts were disconnected.

Ah, they’re celebrating together without me.

I was never missed.

It was better this way, wasn’t it? For those three to be together?

He’d caused enough harm just by living hadn’t he? He’d troubled his brother, He Xuan, and even his royal highness.

It was better if he could stop troubling any of them anymore.

The cold grew stronger, but Shi Qingxuan couldn’t feel it anymore.

His body felt oddly light and painless. The constant aches he’d learned to live with had all but disappeared.

The match burnt out, and the vision of all his former friends happily feasting together without him vanished.

I never mattered.

That thought…hurt. It was a thought that often came upon him late in the late at night when his broken limbs burned and his stomach was a knot of hunger and pain. It was a thought that he’d always flinched from—tried to avoid—and when all else failed, forcibly redirected.

It was a thought he simply didn’t want to entertain.

But when confronted with this vision, it was one he could no longer avoid.

He’d always thought that regardless of how irritating or silly he sometimes was, his friends had genuinely cared for him and liked him.

That all those times he’d thrown out merits to the wind and laughed carelessly over the communication array, people had been fond of him.

That all those times he’d dressed as a female and dragged Ming-xiong along, he’d been hiding secret enjoyment under that dissatisfied sour face.

He knew he could be aggravating. That his laughter could sometimes be irritating. That people hadn’t always enjoyed his drunken ramblings and overly familiar way of attaching himself to others.

But he thought that despite it all, all the gods and goddesses he’d met in Heaven had been fond of him.

That if the situation was reversed, and one of his old friends or acquaintances had been found to be a fake through no action of their own, he would’ve at least made sure their mortal life was comfortable!

But in the end, all those officials who he shared drinks and food with had turned their backs on him.

And even his so-called best friend turned out to hate him all along—He Xuan had only tolerated his presence all those times when Shi Qingxuan thought they were having fun.

The only one who ever cared for me was brother.

Shi Qingxuan reached inside his robe for the incense stick he found earlier. He stuck it into the ground with his good hand. With shivering fingers, he took his last match and struck it alight, and lit the incense stick.

Wisps of smoke curled upwards and he gave a small final smile.

He gazed down at the still burning match and saw his brother impatiently waiting for him with crossed arms.

Gege, I’ve made you wait long enough.