Translator: Nyoi-Bo Studio Editor: Nyoi-Bo Studio
It took some while for Fan Xian to finally calm down. The cold sweat made his clothes stick to his body
He took the long, thin dagger out the assassin's shoulder. The terrible sound the blade made as it was dislodged from flesh and bone made him pause before he finally removed the small, insidiously hidden crossbow from the dead assassin's sleeve.
The slender blade was covered in some sort of black, opaque substance. Fan Xian knew that Master Fei created a black coating that was not only poisonous but that could cause excruciating pain for anyone wounded by it. He carefully placed the blade inside a scabbard made of elephant hide and glanced at the corpses, those of the assassin on the bed and Old Ha the vegetable seller underneath it before he turned to leave.
As he opened the door, Wu Zhu was standing quietly at the corner of the stairs. "If the carriage hadn't come, what would you have done?" he asked.
Fan Xian lowered his head and said nothing for a long time. Finally, having managed to get a hold on the horrible feelings that his first kill had brought up in him, he raised his head and smiled. "I would have stayed still like he did, and waited for you to come."
They climbed down off the wall again. The lessons he had learned climbing the cliffs outside Danzhou had finally been put to use that day. Fan Xian lowered his feet onto the floor and walked ahead, knowing that Wu Zhu would leave him, and that when he was in danger, he would appear again.
He walked through the hustle and bustle of the market and stayed quiet, his right hand dangling by the side of his thigh as it trembled gently.
He walked with heavy steps through the market and came to a stop in front of a stall. It was a tofu stall, and the hawker was a fair-faced woman in her twenties, with pale, delicate hands and an apron tied around her waist.
"Dong'er," Fan Xian called out to her, smiling. Dong'er was the servant girl he had driven out of the Count's manor. When he was younger, he would lie on her bosom and sleep. They had always been close. After Dong'er had left the manor, she had opened a tofu stall at the market, so Fan Xian often dropped by to buy some tofu to take home.
A gentle smile crept across Dong'er's face when she saw who it was. "Young Master," she asked as she led him in, "what brings you here?"
He sat on a small stool, and as more people came in to buy tofu, Dong'er glanced at him awkwardly.
Fan Xian nodded, and allowed her to see to her customers first. Looking around, he saw that there was a crib at the back of the stall, with a little girl inside it who seemed to be two to three years of age. Her cheeks were rosy and her clumsy and delicate hands reached out at the little bell attached to the crib.
Fan Xian reached out to pick up the little girl and play with her. Dong'er turned around and hurried back to clasp her to her bosom. "Don't get your clothes dirty," she grumbled. "You'll only create more work for those servant girls."
Fan Xian giggled. "Dong'er, when I was the same age as your daughter, didn't you hug me like that every day?"
Dong'er laughed. "Young Master, how can you compare yourself to us mere servants?" It was rather curious. Dong'er had been chased out of the Count's manor for testing a dish before Fan Xian had had the chance to. But by the sound of it, she bore no malice toward the boy at all.
Fan Xian scratched his head, unsure of what to say. Dong'er realized that something was wrong with him, so she picked up her daughter and co
oed to her, "This is the young master, can you say that? 'Young... Master..."
"Call me Uncle," insisted Fan Xian.
He sat at the tofu stall for a long time, watching Dong'er cut tofu, weigh it, and wrap it up in paper while he played with the young girl, getting her to call him 'uncle'. After a long while, he managed to expel the gloom from his mind, and stood up to say goodbye to Dong'er.
"You've come all this way," said Dong'er, a little embarrassed, "and I don’t have anything good for you to eat."
Fan Xian smiled. "Dong'er, do you think I'm not eating well?"
"That's true," Dong'er laughed with a young woman's bashfulness. "Thank you for buying all these things for my little girl, young master."
Fan Xian shook his head and smiled. "I just hope you don't hold it against me for chasing you out of the Count's mansion."
Dong'er smiled and said nothing. She trusted the young lad, and even though she'd never understood why he'd flown into a rage over her testing a little bit of food, she knew that he didn't do it on purpose. What was more, after she'd left the manor, the young master would secretly send her money. After she'd married, she'd lived comfortably with her husband and her child. A large part of why she came to work at the tofu stall was because it made it easier for the young master to come see her.
Fan Xian waved goodbye to her and stepped out into the market. Looking back, he saw the gentle young lady holding her daughter Xiaoni as she cut the tofu floating in the water. Leaning forward slightly, her body was still slender and supple. With no trace of the passing years upon her, she looked just as she had ten years ago, when she would hold him tight.
Fan Xian had found an excuse to chase her away because she was his personal servant-girl. If anything had happened to him, she wouldn't be safe either.
In Fan Xian's 'early years', he had loved her most, and loved to climb all over her, often fantasizing about what they could do together when he was grown up. But he had forgotten one very important point - as he slowly grew up, she would also grow up, and now he was twelve, she was in her twenties.
It was just like the story of Bao Yu and Qing Wen in the Dream of the Red Chamber. It seemed hopeless.
"When you were born, I had not been born;
when I was born you were already old.
You regret that I was born so late;
I regret you were born so soon.
When you were born, I had not been born;
when I was born you were already old.
I regret that we could not be born at the same time,
so that I could spend all my days with you."
As he made his way back to the manor, he hummed a tune to himself and fantasized about how he could get Dong'er to love him - an attempt to rid himself the image of the cold dead eyes of Old Ha and the assassin staring at him.
Because he had eaten stir-fried bamboo shoots laced with poisonous maokouzi for lunch and had snapped a man's neck in the afternoon, he found he had very little appetite at all; he could barely eat anything before going to his room that evening..
When night came, he found himself somewhat hungry. Holding an oil lamp, he walked to the kitchen alone, taking care not to alert any of the servants.
Entering the kitchen, he washed and cleaned a fish, his vegetable knife like a bird in flight. In a flash, he descaled and removed the belly, and used the techniques Wu Zhu had taught him to cut thin shreds of ginger. As his knife fell upon the chopping board, it made no sound, and he put the ginger shreds into a small bowl with some vinegar.
Over a large flame, he steamed the fish belly in steaming water.
As he squatted, watching the stove and the steam that gently rose from it, Fan Xian had an amusing realization. Fei Jie and Wu Zhu were teaching him how to kill and avoid being killed for his mother's sake. But objectively speaking, they had also taught him how to be a good medic and a successful cook.