He started to leave the house. At first he did it while feeling the walls and doors, carefully placing one foot after another so he didn’t miss a step. Later he gained confidence, already remembering where to turn and where to stop. He sat on the porch, exposing his face to the sun, listening to how the Daozhang was getting ready for the town, how A-Qing was complaining about something – she complained all the time, as though the world had made a promise to her and failed to deliver. Then the Daozhang left and Xue Yang entertained himself by coming up with ways of revenge against his enemies, a different one every day. Soon he got sick of that as well.
When he was a boy, roaming through the streets in search of something to eat or work that would get him food, always hungry, cold in winter, bitten by mosquitoes and gadflies in summer, Xue Yang dreamed of having his own house. It didn’t have to be big and fancy, just his own. He imagined himself sitting on the porch all day long, watching people walking by while doing absolutely nothing. What a life that would be, to be able to just sit back and relax!
He never thought that it might be this boring.
If only he could spread out his knives, get the whetstones and grind slowly, bringing the sharpness of the blades to perfection. Or polish his sword so well that its blade could be used as a mirror… well, he didn’t need that anymore. And Jiangzai stayed with Jin Guangyao. Together with the knives. The whore’s son had the foresight to take away all his weapons, while the guards took care of his money. They left him only with that handful of sweets in his pockets, probably out of squeamishness. Too bad that it didn’t survive; he craved sweets something terrible.
After waiting for the Daozhang to leave, Xue Yang rose and crossed the yard, leaning on his cane. It took him fewer steps to reach A-Qing’s coffin than he had counted the last time. They’d probably been shorter then, as he’d been almost hobbling at that time.
“Why are you wandering around?”
“I’m bored,” Xue Yang said while turning towards A-Qing’s voice. “What do you do when the Daozhang’s not here?”
“I’m always busy. I sweep the yard, weed the garden, loads of things.”
No one has ever hired Xue Yang to sweep the yard – or wait, it did happen once, when he was a child. The first time he got paid for his work, but the second time he broke the broomstick – and the master of the house broke its pieces once again, against Xue Yang’s back, and then chased him out. Later that night, Xue Yang returned to burn the man’s house down. It was a bright, merry fire.
“Gimme some work, too.”
A-Qing thought about that for a moment while tapping her heel.
“It’s not like you can lift anything heavy… what about sewing, can you do that?”
Xue Yang raised his bandaged hand, only to remember that A-Qing was blind as well.
“My fingers are broken.”
“Completely useless,” muttered A-Qing without a trace of sympathy. Little bitch. “Let’s go to the garden, then.”
He had to count the number of steps to the garden again, too. A-Qing held onto his sleeve so that he wouldn’t step on some precious radish.
“Keep away from the Daozhang’s herbs,” she warned him right away. “You can’t tell them from weeds. Look, here are the radishes.” She laid his hand on a dense bunch of stems. “And there are onions in between. Everything else must go, and the soil needs softening.”
If he ever kills someone, he may bury them right here. The vegetables will grow nice and fat. He’d just have to put his victim’s soul to proper rest, or they’d rise as a fierce corpse and stomp all over the garden rows. He’d never hear the end of it from A-Qing. And the Daozhang would be upset that his herbs got trampled.
Xue Yang grinned at those thoughts and started to dig out some tiny weeds, throwing them aside. A-Qing was rustling nearby, digging or something like that. An outsider would see a peaceful pastoral picture – a hardworking peasant family earning their living.
It was a good thing that no one was watching.
The Daozhang found them in the garden when he returned.
“A-Qing, it’s not polite to make a guest work.”
“He wanted to!”
The surprise in the Daozhang’s voice was so sincere that it almost made Xue Yang laugh.
“I was bored just lying around doing nothing.”
“I told him not to touch your herbs,” A-Qing stepped in. “And the radishes are ready for harvest, look.”
“Yes, they seem big enough,” the Daozhang agreed. “A-Qing, I bought pumpkin and turnips, they’re on the table inside. Would you mind cleaning them? I’m going to make soup.”
The girl didn’t bother with a reply, just springing to her feet and running towards the house, as fast as if she were sighted. Xue Yang told himself not to be envious. If an ordinary blind girl could adapt herself like that, then he’ll be able to do it all the more so.
The Daozhang sank to the ground next to him, ever so slightly touching his sleeve. As though Xue Yang couldn’t determine that he was very close by hearing alone. He was blind, of course, but not deaf.
“Please, don’t be angry with A-Qing, if she doesn’t show you enough respect. She has had a hard life.”
The polite request contained a clear warning.
“Don’t worry,” Xue Yang snorted. “I don’t kill children.”
“I’m glad to hear it. But I hope you also refrain from milder forms of punishment.”
“I don’t beat them either.”
There was no denying that A-Qing’s grumbling could drive a dead man crazy. But Xue Yang liked her gall. She was like him, a street rat, making her way with elbows and cunning. Xue Yang also thought that she could help him adapt to blindness. She showed a painful ease in running around the house and dealing with things in general. Sighted people didn’t understand what it was like to live in eternal darkness. He himself had not understood until recently.
“I’m glad,” the Daozhang repeated, touching his hand. Xue Yang didn’t flinch at the touch. The gesture was meant to calm him, convince him of the sincerity of the Daozhang’s words. Strangely enough, it really did calm him down. “She sometimes forgets the importance of respect for one’s elders.”
“She swears and whines, you wanted to say.”
“She has a good heart,” was the Daozhang’s prim reply, which meant: she swears and whines like there’s no tomorrow, but it is not proper to say it behind her back.
“Daozhang!” the proprietress of a good heart screamed from the house. “I can’t believe that they slipped you rotten vegetables again, what were you looking at? Can you even really see or what?!”
“That’s not possible,” the Daozhang objected weakly. “All vegetables sold by that merchant looked good.”
“You mean the vegetables lying on the counter?” Xue Yang inquired.
“Yes, but – the vegetables he gave me came from the counter, too.”
“From the back of the pile, right?”
The Daozhang’s voice sounded so confused that Xue Yang started to laugh.
“You’re stupid, Daozhang. This merchant put the good vegetables atop the bad ones, and pulled the rotten vegetables from the bottom of the pile while distracting you with his talk. And then put normal vegetables on the top of your basket, so that you wouldn’t notice right away. They all do that. You should’ve checked right there on the spot.”
The Daozhang just sighed.
“But had the turnips turned out to be good, I would have offended him with an unjust suspicion.”
“He’s a merchant! All of them cheat. What kind of mountain have you descended from that you trust people so much, Daozhang?”
The Daozhang laughed.
“A high one.”
“That’s obvious. Next time, I will go with you.”
The laughter stopped.
“Your leg has yet to heal.”
“So I will walk slowly. I’m not going to eat a rotten soup.”
Finally a reason to find some amusement; he had already been climbing the walls of the coffin house out of sheer boredom.
Nevertheless, the Daozhang took Xue Yang with him only when the latter’s leg finally stopped hurting. Now it was just aching after walking, and often threatened to sprain.
“I told you that it might grow back crooked,” the Daozhang said in a voice full of rightful indignation. “You shouldn’t have started walking so early.”
Xue Yang just waved his hand. He had already grown used to walking with a slight limp on the healed leg, and it wasn’t any worse than usual. In comparison to his blindness it was a mere trifle. Where would he even hurry? To the nearest boulder or a pit in the ground?
When they went through the gate, Xue Yang lowered his stick, feeling the road in front of him. How wide was it? Which direction did it lead to? He wouldn’t know until he explored it; how humiliating: to poke around like a blind mole, while the Daozhang was looking at him and waiting patiently...
The Daozhang lightly patted his elbow.
“If you hold onto my arm-”
“I’m not a cripple,” Xue Yang growled. “Or if I am one, at least I’m not helpless.”
But you are a helpless cripple, a voice inside his head told him mockingly for what was definitely not the first time. It sounded disgustingly like Jin Guangyao. A blind, helpless cripple who doesn’t even know where to go.
“You have never walked on this road,” the Daozhang told him gently. “Even sighted people need a guide when they are on an unfamiliar road. Please, let me be your guide. At least for the first time.”
“Tell me, Daozhang,” Xue Yang said in a perfectly earnest voice. “Why did you descend among us mortals? Did you manage to sin when you were already in heavens, so they banished you and won’t take you back until you regain your sainthood?”
The Daozhang laughed like any other human – so there was at least something of a mere mortal in him. Apart from that stunning naivety, of course.
“Stop it. Would you not do the same, if you were in my place?”
“Why?” the Daozhang asked, obviously puzzled. “If it were me who didn’t know the way, wouldn’t you show it to me?”
“Oh, Daozhang, what are you talking about? Of course I’d show it to you, but not to some stranger.”
“You’re also not a stranger to me, Chengmei.”
“That’s not the point! You-” Xue Yang was groping for words. “You’re too holy. People can’t be like that.”
“Because everyone will use you, that’s why! And they’ll even think that you owe them.”
“You sound just like A-Qing,” the Daozhang noted. It seemed to make him smile.
“I sound nothing like Little Blind!” Xue Yang snapped and grabbed the Daozhang’s elbow. “Come on, show me where to go.”
“If you go right, you will leave the town. If you go left, you’ll reach the center. It’s not a big road, few people take it. But it’s quite smooth.”
The Daozhang’s elbow under Xue Yang’s hand was firm, tensing slightly whenever Xue Yang missed a step, as though the man was ready to serve him not only as a guide, but also as a support. Xur Yang tapped the road with his cane, remembering its sound and its feel under his feet.
“Now the road has widened and there are houses on both sides. There is a shop with funeral supplies on the right.”
“Apples,” Xue Yang repeated. The sweet smell was so strong as though the apples were growing right beside them, close enough for him to reach with his hand and pluck the ripe fruits. “Is there a garden to the left?”
“Yes, you’re right, there is an orchard with apple and plum trees. It has a good harvest. Now the road forks: on the left is a small alley, on the right one reaches the main street. There is a teahouse on the right, and one more funeral shop on the left.”
“I thought that Little Blind was joking when she said there’s loads of funeral stuff here.”
“No, it is indeed the case,” the Daozhang laughed. “I was also surprised at first, but then I got used to it. There’s a little restaurant on the left, they serve delicious mantou. On the right, there’s a small path leading to the local temple...”
Xue Yang was memorizing sounds and scents while the Daozhang talked. If he came here alone-
But what business did he have coming into this town alone? He needed to get to Lanling, into the Koi Tower. Find Jin Guangyao and take a revenge so cruel that it would make all the Great Sects flinch in terror.
“We’re almost here,” the Daozhang told him, just as Xue Yang noticed some sort of noise ahead of them – voices, creaking of carts, clucking of chickens and piercing cries of ducks.
“Let’s go to that merchant,” he said. “The one that slipped you the rotten turnips.”
They walked a bit further. Xue Yang put his cane forward, but strangely enough didn’t hit anyone with it, even though there was a lot of people around. A watchful lot.
“Good afternoon,” the Daozhang said when they stopped.
“Good afternoon, sir. What would you like to buy? I’ve got turnips, cabbage, apples, sun-dried plums…”
“I’d take some apples. But there’s a slight problem – the last time I bought produce from you, some of it turned out to be rotten.”
“That’s impossible!” the merchant cried indignantly. Probably waved his hands around for good measure, too. Xue Yang could easily picture his feigned indignation. “Then you didn’t buy it from me! My goods are never bad!”
“It was from you, my friend.”
“That simply can’t be true! I sell only the best produce! Give me your basket, I’ll put some in.”
Xue Yang stood there in silence, leaning against the counter on which the merchant laid out his goods – almost certainly good and pretty from the side that the buyers could see. When the sound of falling apples stopped and the basket moved closer to the Daozhang, Xue Yang reached out.
“Give it here.”
The Daozhang pushed the basket to him and Xue Yang reached to the very bottom. Already on the second apple he touched his fingers found a soft side.
“Only the best, you were saying?” Xue Yang clarified.
“The very best, don’t you doubt it,” the merchant replied, and Xue Yang threw the apple at the direction of his voice with force.
A dull thud and a shriek from the merchant told him that he hit his target.
“It’s rotten,” Xue Yang said with satisfaction while his fingers touched another apple.
“Young sir, what are you- mmhm!”
“Rotten.” From the way the merchant shut up, the next apple hit him right in the open mouth. “Rotten.”
“Chengmei,” the Daozhang admonished him, but his voice somewhat lacked conviction.
Xue Yang flashed a toothy grin, took up the basket and turned it upside down over the counter, making the apples spill on the ground with quiet thuds. Then he lurched forward and grabbed the merchant by the front of his robes. He would have preferred to go straight for the throat but did not take any chances, as he has yet to master orienting himself by sound alone.
“What if I stick this rotten apple down your throat,” he rasped, taking an apple from the counter and forcefully thrusting it in the merchant’s face. The man was trying to break free, but Xue Yang took him by the collar and hold him in a strangling grip. “And then another one. And another. How long until you choke on them and die, what d’ya think?”
Too bad Xue Yang didn’t have a knife on him. He was sure that he wouldn’t miss this bastard’s ears.
“This holy Daozhang protects your stupid fucking town from evil! You should be kissing the ground he walks! And this is how you repay him? With rotten turnips?!”
The throat under his fingers tensed and pulsated. If he squeezed a bit harder, jerked his hand to the side, the bastard would draw his last breath right here on his own damned turnips.
“Chengmei!” The Daozhang’s hand fell on his shoulder. “That’s enough. I think that this good man has realized his mistake and is now repenting. Am I right?”
“Y-yes,” the merchant rasped out.
Xue Yang held him a little longer, and then released his grip. There was a sound of a falling body.
“Fill the basket again,” Xue Yang commanded. “If I find a single rotten one…”
He was almost wishing that it would be the case. Anger boiled in him, raged like a predatory beast, furious that its prey got taken away and it couldn’t throw itself at it and cut it to shreds. But the Daozhang’s hand was still lying on his shoulder, which gradually calmed the beast down.
“Here,” a heavy basket hit the counter. “The very best, I swear…”
“We’ll see about that,” Xue Yang said with a wry grin. “Let’s go, Daozhang.”
“Thank you, my friend. Here, take-“
“Wait!” Xue Yang almost leapt from sheer surprise. “You’re seriously paying him?!”
“Of course,” the Daozhang replied placidly. “We are buying, not stealing.”
“This bastard should be thankful that I didn’t-”
“He is thankful,” the Daozhang’s hand once again covered his shoulder. “As am I. Thank you, Chengmei.”
“Whatever,” Xue Yang snapped. “It’s not like I was really gonna do him in. There’s no reason to thank me.”
He would have gladly cut the merchant’s ears, though. Or a few fingers. If only he had a knife. He needed to get one from somewhere, even if that somewhere was the Daozhang’s kitchen. The Daozhang would naturally know at once what Xue Yang needed a knife for, but he could ask Little Blind to take it from him, feed her some story…
“Thank you for not letting him deceive me further.”
Xue Yang opened his mouth only to close it again. He didn’t do it for the Daozhang, but for himself. Took the opportunity to rough someone up, at the same time getting rid of rotten vegetables. Took out his anger on a crooked merchant. And that was all there was to it.
But the Daozhang thanked him as though Xue Yang had really stood up for him. And that was… strange. Wrong. Alien.
Xue Yang had no idea what to do with that.
“Let’s go,” he repeated, pushing those annoying thoughts aside. It was better this way. The Daozhang’s elbow once again found itself under his hand, and Xue Yang grasped at it before he realized what he was doing. “But if the bastard lied to us again-”
“You’ll stick an apple down his throat.” The Daozhang’s voice held a smile. Did he not understand that Xue Yang wasn’t joking? “It was indeed very impressive. Do you want some mantou? They make delicious ones at the restaurant we passed.”
Xue Yang had just almost killed a man before his eyes and the Daozhang was chattering about mantou of all things. As though he was sure that Xue Yang wouldn’t do anything.
“I’d rather have something sweet,” Xue Yang grumbled. “If you’ve got enough money.”
They were in no hurry to get back, and Xue Yang was learning the way in the reverse order: the clinking of dishes from the teahouse, the smell of apples, the trampled earth that replaced the scattering of small stones. Only when they almost reached house did he suddenly realize that he was still holding the Daozhang by the elbow. And, most importantly, he did not even remember that he wanted to go by himself. As though it was his intention to hold onto the Daozhang like that.
Of course he made it seem like it was. He would have looked very stupid otherwise.
Their story about the merchant was met with warm approval from A-Qing. Xue Yang had been right about her. The Daozhang was the holy one who didn’t even want his money for the rotten turnips back, but the girl wouldn’t let anyone walk all over her.
“You should’ve stuck an apple down his throat for real! At least one.”
“I’d have to beat him up first,” Xue Yang explained knowledgeably. “So he wouldn’t fight back. But Daozhang wouldn’t let me do that. Right, Daozhang?”
“I wouldn’t,” the Daozhang agreed.
“Because he’s holy.”
“Yeah,” A-Qing giggled.
“Why are you talking about me as though I’m not present?”
“Because we don’t see you,” Xue Yang grinned. “So we can pretend you’re not here.”
They had gathered in the kitchen; the Daozhang was cooking a soup while Xue Yang and A-Qing sat on the floor, munching on apples. Sweet, with barely any trace of sourness, almost overripe. It was Xue Yang’s favorite kind.
“Or you should’ve hit him with your cane! What use is it to you if you just keep clinging to Daozhang?”
Look at the little bitch, how does she know all this? If he had his cane close by, Xue Yang would have hit her with it. But by now, he knew the house and yard as the back of his hand, to the last rotting tile, so his cane was lying by the threshold, unneeded. And she was too far for him to smack her, and he was too lazy to get up.
“I’m gonna hit you with it!” Xue Yang threatened so that the girl’s insult didn’t go unanswered.
“But of course, you can always hit me,” A-Qing whined in response. “I’m small, helpless, anyone can hurt me! What have I ever done to you?”
She kept whining on, obviously counting on the Daozhang taking her side. A clever little bitch. And he couldn’t even really do anything; the Daozhang would immediately stop him, and say “Chengmei!” in such a reproachful tone as if Xue Yang had offended him, and not pinched the girl’s sharp tongue. The Daozhang had no idea what it was like to be a cripple, and to be reminded of that at every opportunity on top of it.
Next time, Xue Yang will go to the market alone. Even if he falls into a ditch ten times over, he’ll get there. He doesn’t need a guide. He can do everything by himself. Including hitting someone, if the need arises. And getting food. And killing those who crippled him-
“A-Qing, stop,” the Daozhang said quietly. “Chengmei, please don’t mind her.”
A-Qing sniffed, clearly offended. What was going on? The Daozhang didn’t stand up for the poor, misfortunate girl, but took the side of the one she was pestering? She didn’t expect such development. Xue Yang suppressed the urge to stick out his tongue at her as it was childish as well as pointless – Little Blind wouldn’t even see it.
“You should learn to bite your tongue,” he told her with a grin. “If you keep being so mean, no one will marry you. You’ll be left lonely with no one caring for you.”
“So what?” A-Qing snapped, not overly frightened by such a grim vision of her future. “I will care for myself. What’s so good about getting married, anyway? It’s just too much hassle. Look at Daozhang, he’s not married and everything’s fine for him. Right, Daozhang?”
“Staying unmarried is easier for men than it is for women,” the Daozhang objected. “If a woman doesn’t devote herself to cultivation, someone needs to take care of her.”
“So you will take care of me.”
“When the Daozhang gets married, his wife will chase you out of the house,” Xue Yang commented snidely. “No one likes a freeloader.”
“Why the hell would he get married?!”
“And why the hell not? There should be a line of women wanting to marry him. Our Daozhang is young, caring, goes to the market, cooks.” Xue Yang was openly laughing by now. “He even repaired the roof. And he’s probably handsome, too. Are you handsome, Daozhang?”
“Stop it, both of you,” the Daozhang asked them, but there was laughter in his voice, too.
“Just say – are you handsome?”
“Just average… I guess. How would I know?”
“And modest, too, look at him!” Xue Yang added gleefully, springing up to his feet. “Come on, let me-”
He reached out with his hand without thinking, only to find himself caught by the wrist. Xue Yang frowned; so far, the Daozhang had never stopped him from touching his shoulder or arm. But the grip loosened after just a few moments, and the Daozhang slowly guided Xue Yang’s palm towards his own face.
“There you go.” Xue Yang reached with his other hand as well, to be able to feel more at once. “A smooth face, narrowed at the chin. A high forehead. Straight eyebrows, and a straight nose, too.” He suppressed the urge to flick that nose, fearing that the Daozhang would cut his exploration short. “Mouth… beautiful,” his fingertip carefully traced the curve of the upper lip, all the way to the corner. “High cheekbones. Close your eyes.”
His fingers traced the closed eyelids. There was something… uncanny in all this. In how obediently the Daozhang hung his head and offered himself to Xue Yang’s hands, as though he knew he would come to no harm. How was it possible? Eyes were such a fragile thing – press a bit too hard and they’ll… wasn’t he at all afraid that Xue Yang could blind him simply on some evil whim?
“Big eyes. With long lashes. You really are handsome, Daozhang.”
The cheekbones under his fingers immediately became warmer.
“Hey!” A-Qing cried out in indignation. “What are you doing, feeling Daozhang up?!"
Xue Yang started to giggle.
“Envy me in silence.”
“Chengmei!” The Daozhang said reproachfully, but he didn’t pull back. And while A-Qing was mumbling something about shameless people, not knowing any decency, Xue Yang’s fingers traced the high, straight and gentle cheekbones one last time.
They were so hot one could bake flatbread on them.