Su Xiyan meets Tianlang-Jun on a day that's so ordinary it could almost be offensive. She's been chasing a demonic beast for the better part of four days, and annoyance does not quite cover what she feels.
As she leaps in closer to kill it with a sword strike, she nearly trips over somebody.
It's some young master, busy whiling away his time. Su Xiyan feels scornful noticing the scroll of poetry he's been reading.
The beast falls down, dead, as she sheathes her sword.
The man—more like a boy, really—looks impressed.
The ridge she'd chased the monster to was one of the more isolated parts of the land, somewhere near Bailu Mountain. A young master of a good family would probably only come to a place like this if he'd been thrown out of the house.
Su Xiyan feels a distant sort of pity, so she fishes out three silver taels from her purse and tosses them to him.
She doesn't look back, and jumps onto her sword, all the way back to Huan Hua Palace.
The second time Su Xiyan meets Tianlang-Jun, it's a perfect spring day.
On the sides of the dusty road, osmanthus trees dazzle the sensations with their overpowering fragrance. Birds chirp cheerfully and sun rays make dappled patterns through leaves.
Su Xiyan herself has just returned from a successful hunt; besting monsters and ending fear always leaves her glowing.
That's when she sees them. At first, she thinks they're beggars, holding out for a benevolent traveller's purse. Then the older one steps forward.
“Wait!” he exclaims. It's the little idiot who was reading poetry with a demonic beast rampaging nearby, she recalls.
As she listens to him, she can feel her lips curve in an involuntary smile.
She is Su Xiyan, head disciple of Huan Hua Palace. She can strike a demon-beast dead with one slash, is skilled enough to rank above all other cultivators. For years, men have lined up at her doorstep, begging for her hand.
And here this miscreant is, trying to con taels out of her. Somehow, it's almost comforting. To him, she's simply the cultivator who gave him three silver taels. Speaking of which—
“You ask for money, but you still haven't even paid me back those three silver taels, have you?”
The conversation goes back and forth, and Su Xiyan feels like bursting out in laughter. This young master, she thinks, he truly is shameless.
“You say that three silver taels is too high a price for you to buy me—”
(Su Xiyan doesn't know how they went from bargaining about prices to her buying a man; then again, she's sure that whatever debate it was, she must've been the one victorious)
“—but don't you think that my face at least is worth three taels of silver?”
Su Xiyan takes it back. If she thought this person was shameless before, now he's absolutely outrageous.
But then again, it's not like he's lying. Su Xiyan’s been called a beauty before but in front of this person, she feels almost inconsequential.
Suddenly the utter hilarity of the situation hits her. Her laughter is a half-forgotten thing and the sheer breathlessness of it surprises her.
“You're right, it really is.”
Su Xiyan smiles, then throws down a golden ingot. Huan Hua Palace is the richest of all cultivation sects and she's the head disciple. They can afford to miss an ingot or two.
He looks surprised, as does the serving boy beside him.
Then the surprise changes into glee.
“You truly are a lady of mercy, a legendary beauty!”
Su Xiyan laughs again.
“My name,” she says, “ is Su Xiyan.”
He stands up, bowing at the waist.
“Maiden Su. This one is called Tianlang-Jun.”
After that, it seems almost inevitable, no, expected that she meet Tianlang-Jun everywhere.
Every few months, he finds her and begs off a bag of coins. Eventually, she gives in to the fact that this is probably going to become routine.
She takes him and Zhuzhi-Lang (who is apparently, a nephew and not a servant boy) to see plays, performances, little miracles of nature.
Caves where stalactites hang like frozen gems. A pipa player who weaves melodies like silken cloth. And, of course, the ridiculous plays Tianlang-Jun adores.
Today's play is a romantic one, as plays favoured by Tianlang-Jun often are. Currently, the heroine is bemoaning the fact that her beloved will never be accepted by her family.
“Why do you enjoy watching this kind of trash?”
“I'm not as hard-hearted as you, Maiden Su. It's refreshing to see how passionate humans are.”
Su Xiyan would have to be a fool to have not understood by now that Tianlang-Jun was a demon. His skin is as pale as lily-petals, even under the blazing heat of the summer sun. When he laughs, his eyes gleam red. He throws precious jewels around as if they're cheap sesame-seeds and has no concept of human money.
( Xiyan-er, you must get close to that beast. Find out what he's plotting in the human world. What you'll be doing is for the good of all cultivators )
( I understand, Master. This disciple will not fail you. )
Tianlang-Jun exclaims with true excitement as the hero confronts the heroine’s father, emphatically declaring his love. The stern father is moved to give his blessing for their union. The curtain closes on the hero and his bride, both clothed in red silk.
“Wasn't that beautiful, Maiden Su?” he asks enthusiastically. Behind his back, Zhuzhi-Lang unsuccessfully tries to hide a yawn.
Sometimes, Su Xiyan thinks that despite being a demon, Tianlang-Jun is purer than any human cultivator.
“It was unrealistic. After declaring his undying enmity for the boy’s family, why would the father change his mind merely a scene later?”
“Ah, but isn't that the beauty of plays? Things that seem impossible in our dreary lives unfold on stage!”
What she doesn't say is:
Happy endings don't always happen in real life. Demons and cultivators can never be more than sworn enemies. Love can't conquer all.
What she says instead:
“I suppose so. I have a hunt coming up, so I will take my leave of you gentlemen.”
Tianlang-Jun pouts and wheedles and declares that, “Maiden Su, I'll probably be replaced by another man in your heart if you always leave so soon! Stay a while?”
They've done this routine so many times, the words spring to her lips unbidden.
“All of us can't be idle loafers with far too much money to spare.”
He laughs, she laughs, and a half-hidden smile springs to Zhuzhi-Lang’s mouth.
Then the routine changes.
“Say, Maiden Su, d’you think you would mind living together until the white hairs of old age with this idle loafer?”
By now, they've left the play-house. The little side street is empty, aside from a magnificent osmanthus tree.
What is it with you and guihua flowers? The thought is light, idle, empty.
Instead of replying, she leans in close and plants a kiss on his lips. His skin is burning hot, his eyes are flashing red. He is a demon, through and through. His smile is soft and bashful, a young man with his first (and last) love.
Su Xiyan smiles. “I'll come again, as soon as I can.”
As she walks away, the flowers’ fragrance dies away. The noon-time sun shines high in the sky, but she is made of ice. She feels the phantom pressure on her lips and wonders why her heart feels like breaking.
After that, it's kisses and embraces and blood-red flowers ( you said red was your favorite! ) precious jewels and sharp fine blades, a fan drenched in spiritual energy and scrolls upon scrolls of love poems.
( Your hair is finer than the costliest silk,
Your eyes are brighter than the most polished diamond,
You can kill a monster faster than a Heavenly Demon,
In bed, you're fiercer than— )
“Say more, and I'll show you exactly how fierce I can be.”
He smirks. “ Fiercer than a— Aiyoh! Zhuzhi-Lang, come quick, she'll kill me!”
She chases him around the glade. Zhuzhi-Lang hangs back, unsure whether this is a prelude to something more— intimate , or a murder attempt.
(“Some nephew you are!” hisses out Tianlang-Jun later.
“Sorry, Junshang. But last time, at the hot springs, after Maiden Su finished chasing you around, she pinned you down and—”
“Enough, enough! Get me some rice cakes, and quickly!”)
They're sitting on top of Zhuzhi-Lang’s snake form, Bailu Mountain towering above them, when she asks, “When will you return home?”
He grins and leans in close. “Xiyan, you wound me. So eager for me to leave?”
“Leaping to conclusions, one of these days that's going to get you killed.”
( Why do you think I'm a good person? Why do you think I love you? Why do you believe in happy-ever-after? )
“Of course not. I have a beautiful, ruthless cultivator ready to protect me.”
She laughs, but it feels like ice shards tearing her apart.
I would leave you to bleed. I would destroy anyone who hurt you. I'm going to destroy you. I love you more than I've ever felt before. It was a lie, all of it . It began a lie but now-
The words don't come out. Instead she leans over and they embrace, passionately, intimately, lovingly. They are in love, and they are happy, and they will be true to each other till death.
Su Xiyan could almost believe it, if it weren't for the little dagger coated with poison capable of killing a Heavenly Demon that she has sewn into her robe.
Shifu is angry, angrier than she's ever seen him before. He shouts, he threatens, and finally he locks her up in the Water Prison.
“Come now, Xiyan. Don't tell me you actually hold affection for that beast ? It's a simple matter, lure him to where I've arranged for cultivators to gather so that we can be rid of him once and for all.”
She does not answer. The Immortal Binding Cables stretch tight over her skin. She's used them herself, on cultivators who have broken the law and turned from the righteous path.
The irony of it all is bitter.
As she keeps her silence, Shifu’s face goes grim. He pushes the cables closer and she feels fear for the first time. Will he leave her to die here? The thought is distant, and then she fades into the comforting white of unconsciousness.
When she wakes, it's in her private rooms at Huan Hua Palace. Shifu stands at her bed.
“Xiyan, Xiyan. Forgive this old master his rage.”
He looks dejected, old, as if she's destroyed him.
“Let me go.”
The words are a surprise to her. Huan Hua Palace is her home. Where will she go, if not here? Almost unbidden, Tianlang-Jun’s gentle smile and fine features come to mind.
“I will, on one condition.” He takes out a glass stoppered vial. The liquid inside is purple, glinting in the last sun rays coming from the open windows.
“Drink this, before you leave.”
The poison is one Su Xiyan had often thought of using in Tianlang-Jun; in the end, she never had.
“So you know.”
She doesn't say anything; if he expects her to say, the demon forced me to lay with it , she'll have to disappoint.
Everything, all the mistakes and the love and the lies ( and the child ) , they were hers to bear.
Shifu looks at her, and in his gaze there is nothing. “You were my pride and joy, the future of this sect. Now though—,” he shakes his head.
Su Xiyan grabs the vial and downs it in a single draught. She doesn't remember how she makes her way to the gates; either way, it doesn't matter. Tianlang-Jun, she thinks. I need to—warn him.
Liyang Falls. Wasn't that where Shifu had said the ambush would take place? Yes, yes it was. Liyang Falls, she needs to—needs to get there.
She's bleeding. When did she start bleeding? She doesn't remember. Maybe she was always bleeding, and this is the first time she's noticed.
The weight of the child in her belly is heavy. It makes her feel as if she'll fall, totter down and break into a thousand shards, like one of those fine glazed sculptures Tianlang-Jun liked so much.
“Young lady? Young lady, do you require assistance?”
It's some monk. She probably knew his name at a time, but the world is a blurred and painful thing right now, and her thoughts feel slow and languid.
“Liyang Falls. I need to—to get there.”
“Liyang Falls? But—oh my! Is that you, Lady Su? I am Wu Wang, one of Zhao Hua Temple’s abbots.”
The words feel muffled, as if they're travelling over a far distance. Her white silk robe is now dyed blood-red.
“Never mind that, though. Lady Su, let me treat your injuries, you—”
“Tianlang-Jun. Where is he?”
He gives a start. Then he smiles.
“Haven't you heard? We sealed that demon under Bailu Mountain a few hours ago. All the sects came together to—”
“Lady Su, what's the matter?”
She moves forward in a haze, Wu Wang’s medicine clenched in her hands. She doesn’t remember what he said as he handed it over, but the pure kindness of his gaze had nearly been enough to move her to tears.
Finally, she reaches the banks of the Luo River, where once, a long time ago ( a lifetime ago ) she and Tianlang-Jun had lain beside each other and whispered ceaselessly into the night, while Zhuzhi-Lang kept guard.
Now, her breaths come unevenly as she works to transfer the Palace Master’s poison away from her womb. It’s difficult and it would be so much easier to let the child wither—but when has Su Xiyan ever backed down from a challenge?
The birth is a fight waged inside her body, and when the infant finally emerges, covered in blood but undeniably alive , she nearly weeps. She cuts the cord herself, unmindful or the pain.
The only sound to be heard on that silent winter night is the newborn babe’s wails. They echo endlessly, piercing Su Xiyan’s ears. Already, her vision darkens, the poison coursing through her veins.
Crawling towards the abandoned boat on the river bank is the hardest thing she’s done on her life. Every movement is a struggle. The infant quiets down once she places it on the boat’s wooden planks. It’s a boy and Su Xiyan feels—regret, for the fate that awaits him.
She uses the last bit of strength left in her body to push the boat off the bank. It bobs aimlessly for a moment, and then the tides carry it out of view.
An icy breeze blows over her. The child could freeze to death. Drown in Luo River’s unforgiving waters. Or he could survive.
Su Xiyan’s never been an optimist, but when all else is gone, hope is the only thing a person can do.
She dies as the first rays of dawn reflect off the river surface.
( Years and years later, two souls meet in a strange halfway-place between life and death.
“I’m sorry.” “I forgive you.”
A third voice echoes out in the distance. “Junshang, Junshang, where are you? Junshang!” )