Translated by Vivian of Exiled Rebels Scanlations
A-Chu pushed her away and crawled to the side using her hands and feet.
Baili Yuan looked down at her empty embrace. A-Chu’s temperature from just then instantly dispersed, and she felt her own hands turn icy, inch by inch. She looked up, widening her big eyes that contrasted black and white as she said, “Jiejie, what’s the matter with you? I came to pick you up.”
A-Chu leaned against the wall, looking at her alertly.
“You’re worried I’ll punish you, right?” Baili Yuan suddenly smiled. “I originally wanted to punish you, since you betrayed me after all. If it weren’t for you, Shen Jue would already be dead right now. But later, my anger dissipated, and I thought never mind, A-Chu-jiejie is only an ordinary woman, she must have been scared by my assassins at the time.” She stood up and continued, “So, I gave you five days to calm down and waited for you to recover. Jiejie, have you still not recovered? It’s okay, it’s also the same if you slowly get used to it when we return to Xue Mountain.”
A-Chu squeezed her own hand and forced herself to calm down, saying with a steady voice, “I… I don’t want to go anymore, A-Yuan, go by yourself. I promise I won’t report you to the officials, hurry and go!”
The girl was standing in front of the candlelight and looking up at her from below, and her face was covered with a thin layer of shadows, unable to distinguish whether it was joy or anger. She lowered her eyes slightly and looked at A-Chu. “Aren’t we sisters? Big sisters and little sisters should stay together.”
“Recently… Recently, I haven’t been feeling well, I can’t endure the fatigue of a long journey. The North is too cold, and I can’t stand it. Why don’t… Why don’t you come back next year to visit me?” A-Chu forced out a smile, her gaze drifting toward the window behind Baili Yuan. The window opening was a little far from her, and she wasn’t sure whether she could get past Baili Yuan and climb out. The more she thought the more she despaired, and A-Chu’s entire body trembled.
The shadows seemed to deepen by a layer, and A-Chu tried her best to see Baili Yuan’s expression clearly, yet she could only see her porcelain-white chin and dark red lips. The room was enveloped in suffocating silence. She didn’t speak, so A-Chu couldn’t figure out what she was thinking. Fear was like a venomous snake, licking A-Chu’s hand.
“Sometimes, I really want to cut open your chests and take a look, is the heart beating in there warm or cold? A moment ago, you were affectionately calling me A-Yuan, yet the moment you turn your head you can betray me to other people!” Baili Yuan let out a low scoff. “I originally thought you were different from the others, A-Chu-jiejie. You’re trembling, are you afraid of me? Do you think that I’m an evil spirit?’
She leaned down, staring directly into A-Chu’s eyes. “I’ll give you one more chance, either you swallow Bliss Fruit and leave with me, or you die.”
Bliss Fruit! A-Chu shuddered, and in her mind’s eye arose the rigid corpses lying on the cyan slab stones, the prostitute as haggard as a skeleton on the carved bed, Baili Yuan’s eyes seemingly containing a bloody color, and she saw a mountain of corpses in her dark eyes.
“I don’t want to!” A-Chu abruptly screamed, pushed Baili Yuan away, and pulled off the gold hairpin inlaid with pearls from her bun, pointing it at her. “You lunatic, you repeatedly called me sister, yet you were secretly harming everyone in Yunxian Building! You and Shen Jue have a grudge, so just go and kill him, why do you have to drag in innocent people! You…” A-Chu trembled and said through gritted teeth, “Your parents were right, you are an evil spirit!”
A-Chu’s words were like a sharp blade piercing into her heart. Ferociousness arose in Baili Yuan’s eyes, and she lifted her hand, wanting to call the assassins to come inside. However, she saw tears gush out of A-Chu’s eyes. Tears struck the floor drop by drop, like pearls and jades shattering into thousands of fragments. Baili Yuan was slightly taken aback, and the ferociousness in her face slowly receded. She lowered her eyes and turned her head to look at the rustling and swaying kerria flowers outside the window, saying softly, “Jiejie, I still haven’t finished the story I gave you last time, do you still want to listen?”
She didn’t wait for A-Chu to answer and started speaking on her own. “After Ninth Brother died, my parents didn’t let me go down the mountain anymore. Life on the mountain is very boring, you would know if you stayed there. Besides the snow, there’s just the sky, and besides the sky, there’s the snow. It’s a vast expanse of white, without even any extra colors. I built snowmen every day, and there were so many snowmen they couldn’t all fit, so I pushed the snowmen down the cliff and built new ones. The old nun saw that I was pitiful, so she opened the library in the nunnery and let me go and read. I flipped through many ancient medical books, and there were a lot of old and strange formulas recorded in them. I tried them one by one. Snow foxes are hard to catch, but the yellow weasels, rabbits, and mice all died from my experiments, so I experimented on myself. Later, I discovered one day that I couldn’t grow old anymore.”
A-Chu blankly lowered her hairpin, and Baili Yuan turned around, looking at her from a distance. “A-Chu-jiejie, I was born in the heavy snowfall on the tenth of the first month of the eighteenth year of the Qianyuan Era. The day I was born, the celestial dog devoured the sun 1, and an old monk came to my house and said that I was an evil spirit that had come to the world.”
“You’re… You’re nineteen years old this year?” A-Chu widened her eyes.
“That’s right.” Baili Yuan looked down at her own palms. “I’m like a monster, right? In nine years, I’ve only grown three inches taller. Ordinary people have their periods at fourteen years old, but I only got mine last year. Like you, my parents also thought that I was a monster and that I should die.”
She recalled many years ago, when her parents had brought a doctor up the mountain to treat her disease. She had been very happy, since this was the first time her parents had come up the mountain for her. She laid on the alcove bed, watching the doctor pinch her pale wrist. The doctor pinched for a long time and left without making a sound.
The doctor’s expression wasn’t good, so she felt perturbed and furtively got up. She had a premonition that she might not be able to ever get better. Actually, it was okay if she couldn’t grow old, since being a child forever was also very nice. She thought, If this disease lasts a little longer, perhaps my parents will come up the mountain again to see me. She stepped barefoot across the shining white snow in the flowerbed, stepping across the icy plum blossom bricks in the hallway. There was a deathlike silence in the nunnery, and she could only hear the thumps of her own bare feet stepping on the ground.
Sneaking to the meditation room where her parents were staying, she looked through the green smoky window gauze and saw the figures of her parents sitting upright, as well as the old doctor. The old doctor was pinching his goatee, shaking his head lightly.
“This is retribution for your Baili clan, the heavens’ punishment!” Her mother said, “What if this disease can’t be cured? She’s like a monster!”
The room was silent for a very long time, and she hugged her knees, listening to the rustling sounds of the snow. Finally, she heard her father’s voice. “Forget it, send her to the Western Regions. Since she’s an evil spirit, she should have a difficult life like an evil spirit. Send her to the Western Regions, and from now on, life or death will be up to her!”
The words were cold and hard, bone-chillingly cold when they spread to her ears. They finally didn’t want her anymore, like abandoning a dog, throwing her into a foreign country, throwing her to a distant place where they would never meet again. She didn’t know how she returned to the meditation room, climbing onto the icy bed. The word “monster” had been spit out from her mother’s mouth, and it reverberated in her ears, finally turning into a shrill scream.
“Monster!” “Monster!” She thought, I’m a monster.
She started flipping through a medical book again, and a flower outlined in ink came into view. It had thin petals and was curled tightly, like a circle of sharp teeth biting together. She recalled that when she went every winter, many of these flowers would bloom outside the meditation room, spreading all the way from the top of the mountain to the mountainside, like a destructive flame, the only bright color on the mountaintop.
It turned out that what was buried under heavy snow had always been a dark killing intent.
“Mid-July wasn’t enough for me, it only takes effect once a year, I can’t wait for so long! Thus, I increased the concentration of the pill. Twice as much wasn’t enough so I made it four times, four times wasn’t enough so I made it eight times. Finally, I produced Bliss Fruit.”
“Did you feed it to your parents?” A-Chu asked blankly.
“I crushed the pill into powder and poured it into the water source of the Baili clan.” Baili Yuan sneered, “The Baili clan is halfway up the mountain and I was on the mountaintop. There’s a river that originates from a cold spring on the top of the mountain, and they fetched their daily water from this river. Isn’t that stupid? They built sentry pavilions around the manor, enclosing it like a fortress, yet their lifeblood was exposed outside.”
“How many people… were in the Baili clan?” A-Chu asked.
“I don’t know, I never counted.” Baili Yuan smiled. “All in all, when I went down to see them, everyone had gone mad. Jiejie, you really should’ve seen that scene, that was the happiest moment in my life.”
She had picked up a white rabbit lantern and hummed as she walked through the corridor, walking as she lit fires everywhere. The flames spread out along her steps, climbing onto the bright red columns, climbing onto the colorfully painted beams, and climbing onto the crouching beasts on the roof ridges. The faces of her sisters and brothers spasmed as they climbed out from inside the room, howling as they asked her for Bliss Fruit. She impassively scattered out a handful of powder, and they scrambled to lick the ground, not even noticing when their clothes were burned by the fire.
Her father had walked out of the fire, carrying a saber, raging flames burning behind him. His beard and hair fluttered and spread amid the waves of fire, as enraged as a warlord.
He roared furiously, “Baili Yuan, you brute!”
However, he still couldn’t resist the attacks of the drug addiction in the end, and his long saber clattered to the ground. The veins on the backs of his hands and forehead bulged, and his face contorted as he knelt down on the ground. He struggled to lift his head, looking at the indifferent girl amid the sea of fire. “I really should’ve listened to the grandmaster and killed you… You’re an evil spirit!”
“Yes, why didn’t you kill me? Since you didn’t kill me,” Baili Yuan tilted her head, looking at him, “the one who will die is you.”
She turned around and walked out of the marquis manor, the sea of fire burning behind her. Sections of the ruins collapsed one after another, and from then on, her kinships had been severed, and she had no more family in this world.
“Everyone… died…” A-Chu’s entire body chilled.
“Yes,” a sinister smile arose on the side of Baili Yuan’s lips, “since they said that I was an evil spirit, I showed them! I wonder whether they’re satisfied with me, an evil Asura spirit!”
A-Chu trembled. “You lunatic… Baili Yuan, it was your parents who didn’t want you, and it was your second sister who framed you. If you had a grudge, you should’ve just punished them, why did you kill the others!”
“They were all in it together! They only have themselves to blame! Since they hated that I was an evil spirit, why didn’t they kill me long ago, why keep me until then.” Baili Yuan’s face was ferocious. “Since they kept me, they should’ve already predicted that this would be the consequence.”
A-Chu shivered, and Baili Yuan squatted down to caress her smooth cheek. When she didn’t wear makeup, she looked very obedient, with a face like pure and clean water, and her black and big pupils seemed to hide beautiful landscapes. Baili Yuan said softly, “Jiejie, I know that you’re different from them. Come with me, okay? Just now when I said I would feed you Bliss Fruit and whatnot, that was all an angry outburst, I was just teasing you. You’re my only family, how can I treat you like that? I’ll forgive your past mistake of betraying me, we’ll both forget about it, okay?”
A-Chu still shook her head.
Baili Yuan continued, “I have lots and lots of gold, I’ll rebuild the marquis manor, and we’ll live together. Didn’t you say you had the life of an empress, I’ll make you the empress of the North. From today onward, no one will dare to bully you, and everyone will lie prostrate at your feet, saying ‘long live the empress’!”
“I don’t want it!” A-Chu’s tears gushed like a spring. “I’d rather be a prostitute in Yanzhi Alley for the rest of my life, ridden by a thousand people and laid on by ten thousand people, than be the empress of the North and be your sister!”
The smile in Baili Yuan’s pupils receded inch by inch, then grayed inch by inch. In the end, her face resumed an indifference that was like a white porcelain mask, as chilly as a millennium of ice and snow. Baili Yuan drew out a saber from behind her waist, the point of the blade congealed with cold light pointing between A-Chu’s eyebrows. She said impassively, “Then you can die, A-Chu.”
A-Chu closed her eyes, and couldn’t help but shrink her neck. The dagger hadn’t reached the center of her eyebrows yet, but she seemed to already feel that bone-chillingly cold and sharp pain. Her heart shrank into a ball, and she could only hear her own panicked heartbeat in the silence.
However, after a very long time, the pain she expected didn’t attack the center of her brows. Something warm dripped onto the back of her hand, and there was a rusty smell at the tip of her nose. She opened her eyes and was met with the extremely close point of the dagger. It was only an inch away from the center of her brows, and with just a little more, it could take her life. However, a tiny palm was holding it; it was Baili Yuan’s own left hand. Blood dripped down from between the gaps in her fingers, like a beaded curtain whose string had broken.
Baili Yuan hung her head, her bangs covering her eyes. A-Chu could only see her chin, as well as the tears that dripped meanderingly along her jaw.
She was crying, like a child.
Why would she cry? Baili Yuan also didn’t know. She only felt an immense sorrow grab her, practically suffocating her. She hadn’t cried when her parents had said “life and death will be up to her,” and she hadn’t cried when everyone had been buried in Bliss Fruit, drowning in the sea of fire. Now, however, she was crying.
She let go and stood up, turned around, and the side of her lips hooked up a smile that contained no temperature. “You’re all people, and I’m a monster. People and monsters cannot be together.”
A-Chu looked at her back blankly.
She walked to the entrance, and an assassin opened the door for her. The moonlight shone in, and she was a pitch-black shadow in the bright light.
“Doesn’t Chi Yan want to kill me, right, and his little brother Xiahou Lian as well. Let them come, I’ll wait for them in Xue Mountain.” Baili Yuan said coldly, “If they don’t come, I’ll turn the entire Great Qi into an Asura killing field!”
She left after saying this, and the assassins also disappeared from the scene, as if they had never appeared. The night wind brushed past the desolate and decadent courtyard, the withered branches and rotten leaves rustling. Her beaded curtain was also trembling slightly, exposing moonlight over her entire body. A-Chu felt very tired and propped herself on the ground as she stood up, slowly going to sit on her alcove bed. Baili Yuan had been sitting here before, but she already could no longer feel her warmth. A-Chu laid down on her side, and tears silently slid past the corners of her eyes. She suddenly saw a box inlaid with pearls next to her pillow.
What is this? She sat up again and opened it; there was only a thin piece of yellow paper inside. She opened the yellow paper and the dense words on it came into view.
Zhou Chu, twenty-eight years old, a person of Shuntian Prefecture, originally a prostitute of the Royal Academy in Yanzhi Alley, now a good citizen, naturalized in the first year of the Xuanhe Era.
Household registration for Zhou Chu.
The tenth day of the first month of the first year of the Xuanhe Era
Associate Administrator of Shuntian Prefecture, Fan Xian
Her hands trembled, and only after a long time did she realize that this was her household registration. Tears rustled as they fell, dripping onto the yellow paper, like the hazy shadow of the moon. She put down the household registration document and ran out the door, shouting, “A-Yuan! A-Yuan!”
No one responded to her; there was only the wind and moon that filled the courtyard.