The second month, the twenty-third.
Blowing snow filled the sky.
Sima Chaoqun wore a wide bamboo hat and a felt cloak. He whipped his horse to charge faster through the winter’s last snowstorm, charging from Luoyang toward Chang’an.
He knew that Zhu Meng was most likely already in Chang’an.
The Great Protection Agency’s power was abundant, but too widely dispersed. Most of its top-rate talent was comprised of various Jianghu bosses, most of whom would not readily leave their bases of operation to travel to Chang’an.
The men Zhu Meng had led to Chang’an were soldiers prepared to die, each one worth more than ten men, with no intention of returning to Luoyang alive.
Zhuo Donglai would realize this, and wouldn’t enter into an open battle.
But he would have a plan to deal with Zhu Meng, and his plan would certainly be extremely effective.
Deceitful, ruthless, contemptible, but extremely effective.
No one understood Zhuo Donglai better than Sima Chaoqun.
He wanted to get back as quickly as possible, and prevent Zhuo Donglai from doing something he would regret for his entire life.
He had climbed high enough, and felt extremely tired.
He didn’t want to have to climb over Zhu Meng’s carcass to get to the next level.
What method would Zhuo Donglai use to deal with Zhu Meng and Little Gao?
Sima Chaoqun didn’t know, and hadn’t thought about it. Fluttering snowflakes filled the sky like countless dancing butterflies.
His heart suddenly sank, because he knew what Zhuo Donglai planned to do.
The same day, Chang’an.
The first pavilion of Chang’an Restaurant, amidst sheets of cold, fragrant plum blossoms.
No fire burned in the building, as it was improper. To admire plum blossoms requires cold. The colder, the more fragrant; the colder, the more elegant.
This was something that could only be understood by a person who wears marten coats and drinks fine wines and has never felt the bite of hunger and cold. People who didn’t eat well and couldn’t dress warmly would never understand.
“I never thought the two gentlemen would arrive earlier than me.”
When Zhuo Donglai entered the pavilion, Zhu Meng and Little Gao were already seated, and had already finished half a jug of wine.
“Stick your head out, there’s a blade waiting. Tuck your head in, there’s also a blade waiting. We decided to come, so why not come early? Freaking drink some of the free wine and have a good time.”
“Of course. Clan Leader Zhu is correct, arriving early is better.” Zhuo Donglai smiled. “The earlier you arrive, the more there is to see.” One by one, he opened all the windows. “Other than the plum blossoms, what else did the Clan Leader see?”
“I saw a huge pile of dog shit. I’m not sure which stray mutt shitted it out.”
Zhuo Donglai’s expression didn’t change, and he didn’t appear to be upset.
“I’m not too sure, either,” he said. “But I can guarantee that the mutt wasn’t sent by me to ambush you, and wasn’t a member of the Great Protection Agency.”
“How do you know it wasn’t from the Great Protection Agency?” Zhu Meng laughed coldly. “Did you ask it? Did you have a discussion with it?”
Zhuo Donglai was still wearing a smile.
“Some things don’t need to be asked,” he said. “For example, the pile of dog shit that Clan Leader Zhu saw, we know it was a dog who shitted it out, so there’s no need to ask the shit if it came from a dog, because neither dogs nor dog shit can speak.”
Zhu Meng laughed heartily.
“Well said, well said. I can’t measure up to someone as low down you.” He laughed and raised his cup. “I can only drink with you.”
“I can accompany you.” Zhuo Donglai raised his cup and then drained it. “But, there’s something both you and I understand in our hearts.”
“Clan Leader Zhu’s willingness to accept my invitation here was not because he wished to have a few drinks with me.”
“Clan Leader Zhu came because he wants to see what trick Zhuo Donglai has up his sleeve.”
Zhu Meng laughed. “You’re right again. You’re completely freaking correct.”
His laughter suddenly ceased. His bloodshot eyes shot forth an expression as hard as lightning. “What trick do you have up your sleeve?”
“Actually, I don’t have any trick. Even if I did, the person to play the trick isn’t me.”
“If it’s not you, then who is it?”
Zhuo Donglai poured another cup and took a sip. Then, in his unique one-word-at-a-time way of speaking said, “I invited Clan Leader Zhu here tonight because someone is going to perform a dance for the king.”
The expression on Zhu Meng’s face flickered.
What feeling was he experiencing in his heart at this moment?
No one could imagine, and no one could describe it. The scraping of a blade, the stabbing of a needle, the burning of a fire; none of these could sufficiently describe the feeling.
Zhuo Donglai raised his glass to Little Gao.
“Die Wu’s dancing ranks best under heaven. It’s something not many people are able to see. You and me have a great privilege tonight.”
Little Gao didn’t say anything.
Zhuo Donglai laughed. “Although, what I invited Brother Gao here tonight to see is not a dance.”
“What did you invite me here to see?”
“A person.” Zhuo Donglai spoke one word at a time. “A person that Brother Gao very much wants to see.”
Little Gao’s expression also flickered.
—A woman whose name he didn’t know, and a relationship that could never be forgotten.
Zhuo Donglai gave a carefree laugh. “It seems Brother Gao has already guessed who I’m talking about.”
There was a crack as the wine cup in Little Gao’s hand shattered. Fragments of the cup stabbed into his palm.
Zhu Meng suddenly growled like a tiger, his hand shot out, the veins protruding. He grabbed Zhuo Donglai’s jacket. “Where is she? And where is this other person you’re talking about?”
Zhuo Donglai didn’t move at all. He looked coldly at Zhu Meng’s hand and waited until it released his jacket. Then he slowly said, “The person I’m talking about will arrive at any moment.”
It seemed his words were directed at Zhu Meng, and yet his eyes were fixed on Little Gao.
At that moment, a glittering black carriage came to a halt in front of Chang’an Restaurant.
The faint sound of a stringed instrument could be heard from within the nearby trees. The music was beautiful, the accompanying lyrics sang of the vicissitudes of life, and were filled with a sort of helpless sorrow.
“Spring comes and spring goes, the flowers bloom and the flowers fall; when it comes time to part, who can remain behind?”
Die Wu sat mutely in the carriage, listening. In the wind, a dead, withered leaf fluttered out of nowhere like a butterfly, before landing lightly onto the snowy ground.
After pushing open the carriage door and stepping out, she picked up the leaf and stared at it dumbly, for a long time.
A drop of water fell down out of nowhere and landed on the leaf. It was impossible to tell whether it was a teardrop or a raindrop. It looked just like a dewdrop on a freshly bloomed flower petal in the middle of spring.
Frigid wind filled the fragrant pavilion. Zhu Meng loosened the front of his jacket more. It seemed as if he wanted the cold wind to stab into his heart.
Neither he nor Little Gao said a word. Their throats had been stopped up by a sweet, strong, sour, bitter feeling.
A grizzled, white-haired blind man walked up into the pavilion, using a bamboo pole to tap the ground in front of him.
A little girl, her long hair tied in a braid, grasped the old man’s robe and walked along with him.
The old man carried a bamboo flute, and the young girl held a pipa. It seemed they were to provide musical accompaniment for Die Wu’s dance. Even though the old man’s wrinkled face was expressionless, it seemed as if every wrinkle were a tomb that contained countless sufferings and sorrows.
The world has too many sorrows.
The little girl saw nothing, because she was blind. Blind from birth, she had never seen light, and had never experienced the joy of youth.
Two people like this, how could they play music filled with happiness and joy?
The old man walked in quietly and sat in the corner where he usually sat.
It wasn’t his first time here, and every time he came, he played sad songs.
When you play sad songs for people who usually laugh a lot, the sound of the music can arouse their hidden sorrow.
Some people want this. 𝙛𝙧𝓮𝓮𝙬𝓮𝙗𝙣𝒐𝒗𝓮𝒍.𝙘𝒐𝙢
—People really are strange creatures. Sometimes they view sorrow and suffering as something to enjoy.
From downstairs could be heard more footsteps.
They were quick and light and distinct.
As soon as he heard the footsteps, Little Gao swept past the table toward the staircase and rushed down.
Zhu Meng didn’t move at all.
His body seemed stiff, as stiff as the corpse of a rock, a corpse that had been dead for countless ages.
—A woman with an unknown name, and a relationship that could never be forgotten.
Little Gao had thought he would never see her again, and yet here she was in front of him.
—Was it a dream?
She saw him, too.
She stared at him dumbly. Was she surprised? Happy? Did she want to run to meet him? Or did she want to run away?
Little Gao didn’t give her a chance to decide.
He rushed forward and took hold of her, grasping her hands.
This was no dream, and no illusion.
His hands were filled with a feeling of rich warmth, as was his heart.
“Why did you leave that day? Where did you go? Why are you here?”
Little Gao didn’t ask any of these questions.
As long as they could see each other, those things weren’t important.
“You’re here, you’re really here. This time I won’t let you leave.”
He pulled her back up the stairs, his eyes fixed on her face.
And then suddenly, her face suddenly changed, filled with a look of horror.
Her pupils suddenly contracted in terror, and then widened. It seemed like her body would collapse.
—What had she seen?
Little Gao looked at her in shock, and he was about to turn around to see what she was looking at.
But then, his face was also filled with a look of horror, as if he had seen something extraordinarily terrible. A long time passed. And then he finally dared to look back.
He turned his head, and looked at Zhu Meng.
The look on Zhu Meng’s face was like that of a wild beast. A wild beast who had fallen into the trap of the hunter, heart-broken, furious, and hopeless. The person he was looking at was the same person Little Gao had pulled up the stairs.
And in that instant, Little Gao suddenly understood everything.
This woman, who he had found so enchanting, and felt he would never be able to forget, was Zhu Meng’s enchanting, unforgettable Die Wu.
—How could fate be so cruel!
But this was not fate, and it was not coincidence. Not by any means.
Zhuo Donglai looked at them, his eyes filled with the laughter of an evil god watching simple humans make sacrifices at his altar.
Everyone’s hands were freezing.
Little Gao let go of Die Wu’s freezing hands, and started walking backwards. He kept walking until he reached a corner.
Zhu Meng’s stared at his face, and his bloodshot eyes seemed to have transformed into spears.
Spears dripping with blood.
Little Gao died.
Even though his body didn’t die, that bloody spear had pierced his heart.
But this death was not a release.
—What would Zhu Meng do to him? What should he do to Zhu Meng?
Little Gao didn’t dare think about it, and couldn’t. He wasn’t able to think.
The only thing he could do was leave.
Who would have thought that just as he was about to leave, a voice would suddenly say, “Wait a moment.”
Little Gao was shocked to find that Die Wu had recovered her composure, and was suddenly unafraid to face him.
“I know you want to leave, that you feel you must leave,” said Die Wu. “But you need to wait a moment before you go.”
Composed and resolute, her eyes radiated a power that it seemed no person could resist.
Only when someone is afraid of nothing can they summon this kind of power.
Die Wu turned to face Zhu Meng. “I remember you once said that when I dance, no one is allowed to go.”
Zhu Meng’s fists were clenched, as if he wanted to grab the world and crush it to pieces, destroy everything.
Zhuo Donglai laughed. He smiled eerily at Die Wu and said, “You can still dance?”
“Have you ever seen the silkworms in spring?” she answered. “As long as they are not dead, they will continue to spin silk. I’m the same. As long as I’m still alive, I can dance.”
Zhuo Donglai clapped his hands together. “Well then, that’s excellent!”
The fox-fur cloak fell, the dancing garments fluttered.
The white-haired musician, who had been sitting quietly in the corner, stood up. His wan, tired faced looked like a piece of yellow, wrinkled paper.
“I’m blind, old and blind,” he said slowly. “My heart has long since been empty of any happiness. So, I always play sad songs for the great men here. But today, I want to make an exception.”
“You want to play a happy song for us?” asked Zhuo Donglai.
“Did you think of something happy today?”
“No? Then why do you want to make an exception today?”
The white-haired musician stared off into the darkness with his two unseeing eyes. His voice was hoarse and sad. “Even though I’m blind, old and blind, I can still sense that there is too much heartbreak here today.”
There was a twang as the pipa sounded out. The old man’s first note sounded as if it were played on a silk string that could move the soul. The single silk string transformed into countless silk strings; the pipa’s music sounded like pearls falling on a plate of jade.
Every string of silk, every pearl, was graceful and joyous. What he played today was definitely not a song of helpless sorrow.
What he played was a song of the joy of life.
Die Wu danced.
Her dancing was also filled with joy, as if she had forgotten all of the sorrow in her life.
Her life and her dance had been fused together.
Because all she had left in her life was dance.
Because she was a dancer.
In this instance, she was no longer the person who had experienced the sorrows of life, a suffering woman. Instead, she was a dancer; noble, pure and beautiful.
In her dance appeared her happiness and youth, and in her dance, her happiness and youth also faded away.
“The treasured sword is ruthless, Zhuangzi dreams no dreams;
Dance for the king, transform into a butterfly.”
The old man playing the pipa suddenly began to weep.
He played a joyful tune, yet tears filled his empty eyes.
He could not see the people in the room, but he could sense them.
—Such sorrowful people, such darkness.
His happy tune could only make sorrow more sorrowful. It was as if his joyous melody had transformed into a type of ridicule.
There was a “pa” sound as one of the pipa strings broke.
The dance was also broken.
Die Wu fell down like a leaf at Zhuo Donglai’s feet. And suddenly, from within Zhuo Donglai’s bootleg she pulled out a dagger.
The short dagger glittered like a gem.
She raised her head and looked at Zhu Meng, then she turned and looked at Little Gao.
The dagger in her hand had descended, descended toward her knees.
As soon as the dagger descended, blood splattered.
Underneath the blade of the dagger, her legs had become like two rotten logs.
After the dagger descended, she was no longer a dancer. There are no dancers in the world with severed legs.
Such beautiful legs, so lithe, so nimble, so beautiful.