Chapter 1: Fish Soup and Coffin
Sunshine came after the snow. The sky had a reddish tinge, as though it were burning. The snow near the river became a slight orange, a beauty of a sight to anyone passing by.
Hooman limped as he walked, fumbling around on the snow and leaving a trail of blood as he passed. He was a notorious thief. However, as he first visited the location to plan his heist, he was hurt as if he were set up. He ran from the declining situation in a panic.
He let out a deep breath before tearing a piece of cloth to bandage his wounded foot.
The coarse thorns, sand, and stone, took a toll on his silk shoes while he was chased for three days and nights. Frostbite took over his feet, hurting and swelling them.
He trod slowly to the river, hungry and thirsty. Catching fresh fish in this season would not be easy, but it won't be too hard with the skills of a thief like him.
He looked through his pocket, but only found a towel and a few pieces of silver. He had nothing to start a fire with. Having no means to cook, he could only eat raw meat even if he caught a fish.
If it were ordinary times, he would have never suffered like he was now, yet he was suffering from hunger and cold like an abandoned dog. He could not care too much about his situation so his eyes grew brighter for survival.
Hooman limped on to the side of the river. As he was about to take his clothes off, he suddenly heard the sounds of the water being disturbed. A boat, covered in reed, showed up just twenty steps away from where he was. A girl, dressed in light green, knelt at the end of the boat, soaking a towel in the river then drying it right after.
Her tender white skin appeared as her sleeves exposed her wrist.
Human's eyes turned bright. He looked around cautiously only to find the people that chased him have already been left behind. There were no one else in this desolate place near the Lanxi river.
He approached the little boat with a bow. However, the girl kneeling down at the end of the boat didn't notice him. She picked up another cloth from the wooden basin beside her, repeating her previous motion from before to wash it.
This robe must have belonged to a man. Hooman suddenly stopped his steps, looked at the boat, and tried to figure out who was inside the room of the boat. People will be more cautious the longer they stay out in danger and more afraid of any mistakes. Hooman wasn't an exception.
He remembered a saying, a young man would usually appear in a desolate place surrounded by beautiful maids, ornate utensils, and precious valuables. Anyone would notice how rich he was. Soon, there were several famous thieves that followed them. These thieves were known for their wit and violence that countless rich men died from their hands.
However, as it turns out, all those thieves were found dead in a river while their eyes were open wide with a twisted expression on their face. No other wounds were found at all other than a gaping hole between their eyebrows with a twisted expression on their face.
Hooman felt cold as he thought of this. He became afraid of drawing closer to the boat.
Suddenly, several coughs came from the room on the boat. Then, he heard a feeble voice come from the door
"Yandan," the voice coughed, "Yandan, come in."
The girl stood up immediately as she heard the voice. She raised the curtain and entered the room.
Hooman smelled a savoury scent come through the gaps of the curtain, a satiating smell for a hungry person.
He took a moment to decide before walking towards the boat. At the same time, Yandan came out of the room. The dirty violent looking stranger shocked her, forcing her to step back and asking, "Who are you? Why did you come here?" her voice trembled.
Hooman tried to be friendly and put on a big smile.
"Girl, don't panic. I'm a business traveller. I met horrible thieves and was robbed of all my goods. My group members all died, and I was the only one left, and I eventually found myself here after climbing several mountains."
This was the truth, Hooman thought. He did lose the valuable stuff he had on him, and he did climb several mountains to shake off the people chasing him.
Yandan's expression softened. She smiled at him with clear eyes saying, "I thought you were a bad guy".
Her soft voice and beautiful smile made her look prettier.
Hooman felt something scratching his heart. He moved forward another step, putting a fist and a palm together to greet Yandan.
"I ran to the river and have been starving and can barely move. Girl, you are so pretty. I believe you must have a kind heart. I am wondering if you can also give me some food?"
Yandan shook her head, "Sorry I can't decide. I have to ask my master."
She turned around and lifted the curtain carefully, afraid that wind might enter the room. "Master, there is a travelling businessman outside. He said he met thieves and has starved for several day. Is it alright to let him inside?"
A feeble voice came from the other side of the room. "It's cold outside. It's alright to let him in."
Yandan turned back and smiled, "Come in, please." She lifted the curtain and let Hooman in. Hooman, who had a meticulous eye, found no calluses on her hands. She could definitely not fight with those tender and soft hands.
Inside the room of the boat, a handsome young man sat on a cushion with a blanket. His face was pale with a little unhealthy red on the cheeks. He put his hands a in a palm and fist to politely greet Hooman.
"Sit down please," he said in a weak voice, "I am too sick to stand up to show my politeness. Please don't consider my actions as rude."
Hooman was really happy deep inside, although he didn't show it in his face.
"You are too courteous." Hooman was too weak right now and might need to two to three days to recover, but there was only a delicate girl and a sick guy present. After he eats the food and get some rest, he would be able to easily overpower two of them.
Yandan came with another cushion and put it down to let Hooman sit before taking care of the hot pot in the corner. Hooman sat down on the soft cushion and smelled the food's pleasant scent. He felt even more hungry, but held it back. "Why are you staying in such an isolated place? It is not safe nearby and there is a lot of thieves. It's really dangerous," he pretended to sigh.
The young master sat up straight, appearing to be noble. "I find the snow landscape beautiful over here. So I rented a small boat to live on this river for a few days. We haven't met any thieves here, but thank you for your warning. We will leave here after tonight."
Hooman's eyes darted at the hairpin made of white jade the young master wore. The jade was clear, without flaws, and had a glossy shimmer. He had a lot of experience dealing with valuable items and knew that the jade itself was very expensive. It was possible that the young man was a sheltered scholar who was passionate about poetry since he was rich young master that came to an isolated place just to see the snow landscape.
Hooman thought about all of that only in his heart, never showing any signs in his expression. Instead, he pretended to admire the young master, "Such beautiful snow outside, only a master like you can admire it. Can I ask your name? If I can go back home safely this time, I would set up a paiwei for you to pray for your life longevity."
Yandan laughed as soon as the guest finished talking. But seeing the young master come, she stopped laughing, stuck out her tongue, straighten her index finger to touch her lips, acting childish.
The young master turned back his head, "My name Yumo. You do not need to keep it in mind as this is travel matters."
Hooman thought about Yumo's name many times, finding that there is no such man or family with such a name that is famous.
The sun has set, becoming darker and darker. The wind as well became colder without the sunlight as it blew through the landscape. Inside the room, the fire was big enough to completely block out the cold from the outside. He could not feel any of the cold he had felt earlier.
Yandan covered her hands with two towels so she could touch the hot pot and move it to the low table. The savoury aroma filled the room, and the soup was still boiling about in the pot.
The pot of fish soup has become clearer after being stewed for a while. The fish was white, plump with fat. Hooman can't help but swallow his saliva while looking at the fish.
Yandan got a bowl and a pair of chopsticks. The first bowl went to Hooman as Yandan put it in front of him.
"Please," Yandan said, then used the spoon to get another bowl and kneeled next to Yumo, slowly blowing the steam coming from the soup.
Hooman ate at fast, eating and drinking everything while not caring about the fish bones. After he ate his fill, the emptiness in his stomach was no longer there. He let out a long sigh, satisfied with his meal.
Yandan spoon-fed Yumo the fish soup, patiently blowing the hot steam. However, Yumo couldn't even swallow one bite. He started coughing heavily as he swallowed, spitting out all of the fish.
Yandan panicked and gently patted Yumo's back, softly saying, "Master, if you don't want to eat then don't push yourself. Let me know when you have an appetite again so I can boil it for you."
Yumo nodded his head, resting himself on the cushion in silence.
Yandan scooped up another bowl of soup to give to Hooman, saying in a low voice, "My master's body is kind of weak."
Hooman received another bowl, "The body will become better after building up health, but it's fortunate that you have what others don't have." He rolled his eyes and made his mind. The weak master has to go, he thought, but the cute young girl was good at cooking so it would be not bad to take her back as a concubine.
After dinner, Hooman suddenly said, "I'm getting food and drinks, but I have nothing to pay back. But I can tell you a story instead."
Yandan smiled gently, "Oh good, I like stories the most." Yumo laid silently on the soft cushion with a blanket.
The story Hooman was going to tell was really popular among the jianghu. This was the last test that he was going to give them. If they were people from the jianghu, they would have heard the story he was about to tell.
"This story happened in the town of Qingshi. There was a poor guy who's father had just died. He didn't have any money to bury his father, but he hasn't lost all his filial piety just yet so he didn't want to leave the body in an unmarked common grave. He considered that if the body was left outside, it could be eaten by wild dogs. So he dug a hole with a shovel. And when he was shoveling, suddenly he heard sounds of beating metal and saw glistening material at where he was shoveling.
"Guess what is that?" Hooman pretended to be mysterious.
Yandan shook her head.
Hooman continued, "It was a golden cup, it was a bit dented. The poor guy jumped down and dug even deeper with his hands. Soon, he found some butterfly shaped jade. The poor guy had never seen any valuable stuff, but even people like him know that the jade cost a lot.
"He held on to those jades, running home and not even cared about his father's body anymore. The news of him finding valuables from the ground spread quickly, and spread to other towns. A lot of people came because of the news and plan to ask more about the poor guy, but when they pushed the door and were shocked, guess what happened?" Hooman again kept on with the mystery.
Yandan shook her head, "I have no idea."
It was then Hooman lifted his hand, slamming the table and causing the lights the flicker for a moment, "That poor guy already died in his house. His eyes were wide open, face colored green, and he looked really terrified of something. His body was already rotting with bugs crawling all around, yet his hands still tightly gripped the jade. There were people that came in, and all they could think of was taking the jades. They all died shortly afterwards in a couple of days. They all died looking the same way as the poor guy."
Yandan gasped. She was terrified, and even Yumo, who was lying down, slightly opened his eyes while listening to the story.
"They say it was like a plague. Whoever touched the jades would sooner or later die. Then, there were some influential people that came to take a look at the commotion. They looked for the grave where the jades were found and went inside that grave. There was a coffin in the centre made of high quality wood with intricate golden decoration. It looked expensive, not to even mention the things that were buried along with such a coffin.Those influential people pried open the lid of the coffin, seeing a beautiful woman inside who seem to still look alive."
Hooman's voice started to tremble as he continued speaking, "This woman suddenly jumped up and used her fingers to claw out the leader's heart. The leader died with his eyes wide open and a twisted face. He didn't even had the time to react or the chance to fight back before he died. Upon seeing this, the rest of the people turned around to run away immediately. Once they arrived back in the town, they counted how many people survived as some of them were missing. Since then, no one had the guts to go back to the grave."
Yandan grew more afraid.
She moved closer to Yumo. He patted her shoulder and comforted with a serious tone, "The sun is bright and the moon is also bright. How can there be ghosts in this world? This is a story that is passed on continuously by people. The more it is passed, the more exaggerated it becomes. Don't believe too much of this story." These sentences Yumo made him sound knowledgeable.
Hooman just smiled in silence.
After a momentary pause, Yandan suddenly said, "Aiya, I forgot to bring in the clothes I just washed to dry them on the fire!" She stood up and hurried to the other side of the boat.
Hooman remembered her washing the clothes outside when he came. He laughed at her carelessness, but then thought that a girl who is less smart will be cuter.
Yumo closed his eyes again and laid down silently.
Hooman's eyes lit up and saw a chance. He took out a dagger, slowly moved his way to Yumo.
The brazier on the corner burned. The fire reflected the face of the young man, Yumo, who laid on the cushion with his eyes closed. The lighting somehow made him look ethereal as others would not believe the flawless image of Yumo.
Hooman suddenly rushed over, covering Yumo's mouth with one hand. He raised the dagger as he had mentally prepared himself to do the deed.
It was then Yumo's eyelashes twitched and his eyes slowly opened.
As the sun rose, the thin snow on the riverside melted, becoming dew and decorating the plants with water droplets.
Few pieces of thin ice still floated on the Lanxi River. The boat on the river continued to flow north.
A young handsome man stood on the boat of the boat, looking up and closing eyes while his sleeves danced with the wind. The mountains around him retreated continuously as the boat floated through the river.
When he opened his eyes, the color of his pupils had changed to red, "Are you done packing up? We've almost reached the shore."
The boat's curtain's parted away and a woman in a light green shirt came out. She held a wooden plate holding numerous items.
"Okay, okay, don't rush me!" She lowered her body and threw everything she held into the river.
She saw the wooden plate floating along the river bank, and the dagger stuck itself into the bottom of the river. Soon enough, a few more items floated along the river—a set dirty clothes and an earthenware pot containing dead leaves mixed with mud inside followed the plate.
"He seemed to be really hungry. He even ate the leaves and mud like it was delicious," she giggled and looked up at the young man beside her.
"You knew what it was and still dared to come over to feed me. Your courage gets bigger and bigger everyday," He blinked slowly as his pupils returned back to their original dark color again.
"It looks like you start to become restless." His tone was mixed with a smile, not at all threaning and sounding more like a tease.
Yandan smiled softly, "That mortal harbored evil intentions. His soul smelled of blood and looked so dirty. How can you dare eat his soul, yet you wouldn't even eat the muddy leaves that were much cleaner than him."
Yumo thought back of the taste and nodded his head, "It is not clear, but it was better than nothing. If I eat a soul too pure, maybe I will be punished by god. Won't it be better to live long?"
He narrowed his eyes, looking satisfied, "You need to think like this: we are doing a good deed everyday. We are not fully satisfied, but other people in this world can gain a benefit from our deed. Isn't it possible to tolerate just a little for this?"
Yandan momentarily became silent, but couldn't hold any longer, "Your fish face is so thick!"
Yumo looked at her and joked, "Why is this not good? Fish and lotus are supposed to be a couple. If my face is thick, yours is thick too."
He raised his hands and pointed a finger to the front. The mountain was tall and vast. An eagle circled around the cliff, and there were snow covering the tip of the mountain. "We're home now."