He does what he said he would. He travels the world. He fights evil. He keeps the spirit pouch close to him, swaying with his talismans as he follows the road. It remains warm but silent under his cold, dead hands.
Near a burnt out farm north of Qinghe, he repairs his tongue with meat from a dead deer he delivers to a starving family.
It is a single mother and her three daughters. They were left homeless by a band of thieves whose blood now runs down the road on the way to the farm.
They cannot read, so Song Lan must dig into the deer’s side and shove the bloodied pieces of flesh into his mouth until he is repaired enough to tell them: the ground up stone used to make this road is made of bones of 24 dead bandits. They will cut the feet of whatever living thing tries to cross it. Eat, then follow me, and I will lead you to a monastery to the west. They will take care of you.
They flinch and cry and the sight of his bloodied face, but the youngest daughter nods solemnly and begins to gather their things. Four fewer people die that night.
“The girl was brave,” Song Lan tells the broken spirits as he leaves the lights of the monastery behind. He holds the spirit pouch close to his chest, as there’s warmth in his body to offer it. His voice is hoarse, makeshift tongue thick and awkward in his mouth, but he continues, nonetheless. “She kept the others moving. You would have found it admirable. We ought to come back for her later. She would make a fine student.”
He waits, in the growing night, for an answer. None comes.
Still, Song Lan makes a habit of speaking to them -- when it is just him on the road, which it typically is.
He travels mostly in the twilight hours, when his appearance is less likely to alarm. He purchases a bamboo hat to hide his markings and his corpse pallor, in exchange for helping a man carry his goods to the next town. Menial work. But the merchant is good humored enough.
“You cultivators are a strange lot.” He is a fat, friendly man with two sons who keep a careful distance from this strange, tall man in black. “But I’ll take you over an imperial officer any day. Bunch of stiffs. Need to check them for a pulse.”
“I am no better.” He is a corpse. It is hard to get more stiff than that.
The merchant misinterprets him utterly. “Ha, that’s funny. Hey, Dhaozang, got any others?”
“I had none,” he confesses later, holding his hat low across his borrowed eyes as he steals out and away from the village borders. “Xingchen, was it that funny?”
He gets no answer, of course, but Song Lan keeps up these little talks. He talks to the spirit pouch more than he talks to anyone else on the road. Most fellow travelers keep their distance from him. He is a tall rogue cultivator traveling alone. It is reason enough to leave him be, unless the need is truly great.
Sometimes it is. A tradesman from a fishing hamlet comes to him, claiming water demons have been taking their children. He has no need to breathe. So it is nothing to put rocks in his robes and sink himself down to the riverbed to find the nest.
He finds a community of baiji instead. The river dolphins wiggle in confusion as he walks among them, their white bodies flashing in the muddied water. Song Lan signs in query. A mother with its calf drifts close, opens its long snout, and transforms into a wide-faced young woman -- the calf becomes a fat little toddler, hooked under one of her arms.
Signing back, she explains the boy came home to her just last moon. He is quite safe. It just took him some time to learn to hold his breath. However, if Sir Cultivator would not mind dealing with the traders who have been spreading lies about them, they would be most appreciative of it.
“The men wanted to fish in their holy waters,” says Song Lan, as he rings the water from his robes. He dries himself with a talisman. He does not have to worry about the chill, but he thinks, perhaps, Xingchen would scold him if he let his clothes go musty. “I turned him over to the watchtower. We’ll see if they’ve learned how justice is done.”
He doesn’t hear any trouble from the village again, so he assumes there is yet some morality left among the gentry.
Sometimes, Song Lan thinks that Xiao Xingchen wishes to hear what has become of the world.
“There is a new Chief Cultivator,” he says, “From the Nie sect.”
One noble is the same as any other. But he remembers it was a Nie Sect Leader who once listened to their complaints.
“They were always more forthright. Perhaps the world is more honest now.”
He doesn’t say the world will be less complicated. He knows that will never be the case. Those complications strangled them both. Perhaps it will always be so. Perhaps it is simply too much. Song Lan doesn’t dare bring these thoughts to his rough tongue.
“I miss the sound of your voice,” he says, instead.
He follows the river. Xiao Xingchen once loved watching the boatmen light their lanterns at night. Song Lan watches the lights settle across the rocking waters and wonders if, in some way, what’s reflected in his borrowed eyes can somehow reach their original owner.
Xingchen used to recite poems about the moon, to pass their time. Song Lan recites his favorites back to him, hoping perhaps to stir some answering memory from the pouch hanging near his chest.
“Moonlight in front of my bed
I took it for frost on the ground
I lift my head, gaze at the mountain moon
Lower it, and think of home.”
“Li Bai died trying to embrace the moon in the river,” Song Lan says now, as he might have then. “What’s so romantic about a drunk falling off a boat?”
‘Oh, Zichen.’ He can nearly hear Xingchen sigh fondly, moving a step ahead of him, always that careful arm’s length away. He doesn’t laugh. He never laughs, not when they traveled together, then. ‘Spoken like a monk.’
But now there is only the sound of water lapping against the bank, and the bells from the river boat, clanging in the night breeze.
He is still practicing his apologies. None has rung true yet.
“Xingchen, forgive me.”
“I spoke in haste.”
“I was wrong.”
“Don’t leave my side.”
And of course:
“I could never make you laugh like he did….”
“I never knew you could.”
He tries his hand at jokes. They’re as bad as Xingchen’s stories. The only ones Song Lan knows are stiff Confucianist humor, the kind you heard from the monks of Baixue Temple, who have all long since passed from this world.
He tells a joke about a man from Chu who pulled out his rice plants, thinking it would make them taller.
He tells a story of a man from Zheng, who read the words ‘restrain yourself’ from a Lan manual, and tied himself to a tree with a belt.
He tells the story of the rabbit who tricked the tiger. Ah, but come at me and you will surely lose. I am stronger than you, you see? Walk behind me, and look at how all the other animals react. From over the rabbit’s head, the foolish tiger saw all the other animals run, saw his point, and let him go.
He doesn’t find that one very funny. Xiao Xingchen mustn’t either, his soul doesn’t stir, not even in sympathy for that poor gullible beast.
In a township in Qishan, he fights the fierce corpse of a man who’d been stealing from the local fairs.
The man lost his head in the Sunshot campaign. He’s been searching for it ever since, making a stumbling mess of every single place he chooses to invade.
When paper lanterns, a temple bell, a child’s ball, and every single cabbage in the market fail to satisfy him in general shape and weight. While he is busy rummaging through the cabbages, Song Lan knocks him off his feet with the sheath of his sword. One corpse drags the other to a local clothier. Song Lan has the woman offer him up the head of one of their dress forms for his inspection.
The ghost plops the false head on his shoulders, nods approvingly, and collapses -- properly dead at last -- right there across the steps of the shop.
They find his actual head under a tree in an old burnt out orchard. The town pays for a proper funeral service.
“A picky spirit,” Song Lan tells Xiao Xingchen. “I am not certain why he had to try every single cabbage in the cart. You should have seen it, Xingchen --
He stops cold. If he’d had the breath, it would have caught at his mistake. He is not very good at this. It is no wonder there is no reply.
“Though I suppose we would have to share your eyes.” He continues, nevertheless: “I must have chased him for half the day. I felt foolish. You would have laughed.”
He hopes he would have. He hopes it would have sounded like the last one he ever heard, even if it had been a stolen memory. A laugh not meant for him. Xue Yang, that murderer, that thief, takes even in hindsight.
Still, perhaps, Song Lan hopes maybe this one could have been his.
On the banks of the Yongding river, he tries his own hand at poetry. He writes it in the sand. He is no Li Bai, but then, he has long since missed the opportunity to die drunk in a river, so perhaps it balances out.
"A thousand li in search of you
Though you yet rest by my side
A thousand shi upon my shoulders
The weight of you in my arms a--"
“--a cabbage,” he recites, without thinking. It’s been on his mind. He can still remember how they rolled across the village square. He erases the characters instantly. “No. That is not what I meant. You are not -- hm.”
He has barely a chance to erase the whole thing and start over, when he hears it. A weak, raspy little chuckle, barely more than an ‘ah--ah--ah.’ Like how a faint gust rattles a bamboo grove.
Song Lan stands completely still. It’s easy when you don’t breathe.
"Cabbage,” whispers a voice from the pouch hanging beside his talismans. Cracked and faint, like a little wavering candle, it questions him ruthlessly. "A cabbage. Truly? Zichen, that’s…Aha…”
He takes the pouch and holds it in his hand. Inside, a little spirit flame flickers. It’s wavery and faint. It can’t do anything but laugh at Song Lan’s expense for the next ten minutes, but Song Lan lets it. It might be the sweetest sound he’s ever heard in his life.
At least, until he can’t stop and a second ghost has to come alive to cut him off: “Oh, come on, Dhaozang,” it snaps. “It wasn’t that funny.”
“Ah, hush, A-Qing… it was a lovely poem…”
“Says the one laughing it up! And what took you so long anyway? All this time, listening to him go on about this and that and that’s what wakes you up? You have the worst taste. The worst!”
“It can’t be helped.”
“Was it?” asks Song Lan at last. Their voices are so wispy and small, he hasn’t dared interrupt until now. He cups the bag on both his cold, cracked palms. The little spirit lights shine side by side, the wavering becoming stronger as the sun sets. They’re almost warm. Their glow remains, bobbing like two heartbeats, even when one shakes as if yet beset by the breeze. Even when the other one darts back and forth like an irate bee. “Funny, that is?”
“Oh, Zichen,” whispers Xiao Xingchen. “It was… absolutely dreadful. Will you tell me another one? I would like to hear it.”
“Oh, no,” groans A-Qing. “Don’t you dare--”
“As many as you’d like,” promises Song Lan. A-Qing wails in despair.
But he is as good as his word. The dead swordsman wanders into the night, still muttering to himself, still as stiff and bad at humor as ever -- but now no longer quite alone.