Part One. Freely Travelling the World with Wine Abundance
Chapter 2. Chance Encounter
There was a secret about the Nails that no one knew but Zhou Zishu, and from then on this secret might as well be buried with him and a rare few — if all seven had been nailed in at the same time while the person was unwell, even someone with profound strength like Zhou Zishu would only have had one mere breath left to depart from the palace; worse, he would probably become a lifeless lump of flesh before he could even cross the gate.
But if you did one every three months, letting the body adapt to the nails until you couldn't tell them apart on your body — even though death would still be inevitable in three years and there would be an excruciating eighteen months of pain — you would retain at least half of your core strength and could still behave like a completely normal person.
The method was said to drive people crazy with agony; but Zhou Zishu merrily found out that the rumor was unfounded after all. Not only was he still sane, he also felt like there was no other time in his life that he was this happy and at peace.
Those who have left Tian Chuang actually still had their every move monitored; information about who they were, when they left or where they died all recorded in details. The organization was like a giant spider web, from which escape was futile until you drew the last breath.
Fortunately for him, after a life of sacrifice he had gathered quite a few loyal ones.
Zhou Zishu, trained by the Emperor to be a master of all trades for the position of Tian Chuang's leader, was highly skilled in martial arts and disguise; it was impossible to recognize him the moment he joined a crowd.
And so the once most frightening individual in the palace vanished; in his place a free-spirited, miserable-looking wanderer riding a thin horse, gnawing a straw in his mouth while humming folk songs.
He became the first to actually get away from the network just like that.
On his face was a not quite refined mask painted with sickly-colored blotches, so that at first glance he looked like someone on the brink of death. After checking himself out while drinking water from the river bank, he felt this appearance suited his situation all too well, and the more he looked at the disguise the more satisfied he was with it. He conveniently stole a plain set of clothes from a farmer's house by the road, his robes removed and burned, an old flask tied around his waist, half-full with unfiltered rice wine.
Zhou Zishu — after realizing that his name was never once used during all those years perpetually hidden in the dark corners of the palace — gleefully discarded any plans of using an alias and marched on his journey right away.
He also didn't mind what his destination would be. Jiangnan seemed like a good place, so he decided to travel there, maybe do some robbery along the way to help the poor and to simply scrape by. He passed by Kaifeng and Penglai, and after a leisurely three months, finally seeing the colorful scenery of Jiangnan for himself.
He snuck in the most famous tavern's wine cellar right way, trying all the sweet cassia wine and drowning himself in a drunken stupor. He felt elated and floaty, like there was no greater joy in life than this.
Ten days later, after almost getting caught, he came to the conclusion that while the wine was good, its taste had become stale and a bit uninteresting; so he left the place with some silver crumbs1 behind.
After those ten days he looked even worse, his appearance wretched and face evidently ill. The emaciation, the wine-reeking clothes and the untamed bird's nest hair completed his beggar look.
Which was why when he was sitting by the roadside sunbathing, a young chubby girl skipped her way around him, holding a copper coin in her palm but not knowing where to drop it in. After brief inspection, she asked, "Hey uncle2, where's your bowl?"
She was immediately taken away by an adult relative, leaving him unsure whether to laugh or cry.
Years have passed, most of his acquaintance gone, some in worry, some dead, some exiled from home. Zhou Zishu leaned onto a wall, stretching his arms and legs, contently bathing under the warm sunlight, humor curled at the corner of his lips. He started to think about what his desire really was after all this time.
Back when he was still green, he always regarded himself as someone superior, welcoming any praises possible for himself: how smart he was, how cunning3 he was, how good he was at martial arts, how knowledgeable; as if not trying to achieve something in his lifetime would be the biggest waste for humanity. But now that he thought of it, what exactly did he want?
And what had he lost?
He had thrown away his freedom to serve royalty in the dark; his life in a never-ending circle, anything he ever owned had to become compensations for the acts he had committed. Now he was just a loner with empty hands, having racked his brain for a triumphant escape plan that put his life at risk. He even thought it was so smart of him to have succeeded.
He suddenly pitied himself, feeling like the most foolish man even in the most foolish world.
How long had it been since he let himself simply bask in the sun by the road like this? It was terribly amusing that the pedestrians walking by in haste seemed to be in an even greater hurry than him - a half dead person.
In a nearby tavern, a bright female voice rung out, "Young Master4, would you look at that man! If he's a beggar, why doesn't he own a mere broken bowl? If he isn't, then why does he keep sitting there the whole morning doing nothing and smiling foolishly? He must be an idiot, don't you think?"
Even though Zhou Zishu only retained half of his martial art skills, his hearing was as excellent as ever. The girl was a noisy road away and her voice at a medium volume, but he didn't miss a single word nonetheless.
Before he could get a chance to silently mock himself, he heard a male voice replying, "He's just sunbathing."
The voice was deep, very pleasant to the ears, with every word enunciated slowly and clearly.
Zhou Zishu couldn't help but raise his head. On the second floor of the tavern facing him were a pretty young lady in purple leaning over the balcony and a man sitting next to her dressed in gray. The latter had a wan complexion, dark eyes seeming like they could swallow all brightness, features very distinct; he actually did not look too human. Zhou Zishu met his eyes the moment he looked up.
The man in gray returned the look before turning his head away with no expressions on his face, his focus back on the food.
Zhou Zishu burst out laughing, thinking about how in this vast sea of strangers, he somehow still found someone who understood.
The girl in purple was still staring at him up and down with her bright eyes. After a good while, she could no longer suppress her curiosity, informing the accompanying man about something then jumping downstairs excitedly, strolling to Zhou Zishu, "Hey mister beggar, how about I treat you to a meal?"
Zhou Zishu regarded her lazily, shaking his head, "I'd rather you bought me wine, charitable young miss."
The girl laughed gracefully, turning back to her master to shout, "Young Master, this fool called me a charitable person!"
Unfortunately, he didn't seem to listen, paying her no attention. The sky could collapse right then and he would still be more concerned about his meal.
She asked again, "Everyone else would have asked for food, what's so good about wine that makes you crave it this much? Will drinking make you full?"
Seeing that she was very pretty, he couldn't stop himself from joking around, "Wine can attract beautiful ladies, don't you know?"
The answer surprised the girl. She then giggled uncontrollably, body shaking with laughter. Zhou Zishu felt like lady luck had smiled on him, as Jiangnan was truly full of beauty. He admired her, sighing, "Dear utmost beautiful one, have pity on this poor old man5. It's not nice to laugh at people's misery, young miss."
Once more she was surprised. "Yah, you're acting scholarly now too?" She squatted down, untying the wine flask around his waist at lightning speed, running back to the tavern and coming out in just minutes.
Zhou Zishu wanted to take it back but she quickly retracted, smiling, "I'm gonna ask you something. If you get it right, I'll give this back to you and even invite you for more; if you get it wrong, I'm gonna poison this and leave your belly to rot."
Zhou Zishu laughed helplessly; what a troublesome soul behind a pretty face. He replied, "I won that flask from another old beggar, who knows how many lice are in there. You can take it if you want, I'll be happier if you do actually."
She rolled her eyes, giggling, "So all this wine I brought you is for nothing? You make me very angry now, I gotta kill you."
This little devil, he thought, what a waste of beauty. He complied, "Go on, ask me then."
"Why are you out here begging if you don't even have a bowl?"
Zhou Zishu stared at her. "Who said I'm begging for anything? I'm simply sunbathing in this corner."
The girl startled, unconsciously looking back at the man on the tavern's second floor. It's clear that he had exceptional hearing too, but his movements only stilled for a split second after the conversation. With a straight face, he dove back into his food without a care.
"I don't see why it's worth it?" She looked up to stare at the sun, a little confused.
Zhou Zishu shook his head, swiftly snatching the flask back when the girl was letting her guard down, making her exclaim and stare at him in bewilderment. This beggar-lookalike man told her, "You're still young, miss. You have lots of things you want to do, it's only natural that you will make use of the time to stuff your belly full, to live your life to the best. Me? I'm already one foot in the grave, what else can I do but drinking and sunbathing in await of my doom?"
He downed the flask in one shot, smacking his lips, "Such good wine! Many thanks, young miss!"
On instinct, the girl tried to snatch at Zhou Zishu when he was walking away. She considered her kungfu to be quite competent; but unexpectedly, she didn't manage to even touch him despite the man looking like he was only an arm's length away. In no time, the beggar disappeared into the crowd, unable to be seen again.
She was about to chase after him when the man upstairs spoke quietly, "Ah-Xiang6, even if you're not capable enough, I didn't know your eyesight’s also that bad. Stop embarrassing yourself further."
His tone was just above a whisper, no strength to it, and yet it traveled from the second floor, across the crowded street to reach the girl's ears directly. She seemed crestfallen, no longer daring to make any rash decisions in front of her master. She looked back at the pedestrians for a moment before returning to the tavern.
Meanwhile, Zhou Zishu was swaying with his flask on his way toward wherever. Jiangnan was praised to be full of waterways, but while wandering across a small bridge and looking down from there, he found the truth to be a bit of a letdown. Reckoning that no inns would welcome him, he followed along the river bank outside of the city. On the river were small fishing boats which also acted as ferries for passersby.
It was springtime, so the boats were all stuffed full of sightseers. After great difficulty, he finally found a fisherman with his boat docked.
This boat with black sails was right beside other busy ones; it was quite a mystery how unoccupied this one was. On the shore, the fisherman was sprawled out on his back napping, face covered by a straw hat, with only a head of gray hair sticking out. Zhou Zishu went to sit beside him, waiting for the old man to wake up.
But after just minutes, the fisherman was unable to sleep anymore. He yanked the straw hat away from his face, huffing angrily, staring at the younger with great animosity. "Damn it! Don't you see I'm fucking sleeping?" He cursed.
Zhou Zishu wasn't at all offended, "Hey old man, wanna do some business?"
The fisherman cursed again, "You little shit, is your mouth for speaking or farting? Speak the fuck up if you want to use the boat!"
He stood up, stretching and swatting at his ass. But when he noticed that Zhou Zishu was still sitting, his anger exploded again. "Are you glued to the ground now?"
Zhou Zishu blinked, suddenly understanding why this one boat was idle compared to others.
He stood up and followed the old man morosely. "Do you have anything to eat? I don't mind leftover rice," he asked without shame in between the fisherman's passionate swearing session.
"A damn reincarnated hungry ghost7 too, huh," the other one spat.
He fished out a pie with evident teeth marks on it, throwing at the younger. Zhou Zishu giggled, biting into it without a care while walking onto the boat.
The fisherman started rowing away. "Fuck this," he stole glances at Zhou Zishu, still fuming.
1 銀子 (yínzi) A type of currency in ancient China, the standard size for a silver ingot.
2 大叔 (dàshū), a general non-relative term to address older men.
3 心有九窍, literally translated as heart with nine holes, used to describe people with high emotional intelligence.
4 公子 (gōngzǐ), a term used to address young noble men.
5 Two lines from the poem 代悲白頭翁/The Old Man's Great Sadness, by Liu Xiyi.
6 阿 (ā) is a prefix of endearment used between people who have a close relationship; the character's first name is only Xiang.
7 Ghosts of people who have done evil deeds in their life before death; they're condemned to hell and perpetually starving.