Filled with bamboo-leaf-green liquor, the green porcelain cup looked like a big piece of translucent jade.
The bright moon was hanging in the sky like an ice plate. It was full and complete. Were people?
Feng Siniang's face was flushed. It seemed that she was slightly drunk. The moon light shone through the window. She looked up and saw the moon. It reminded her of something that sobered her up immediately.
"Is today the fifteenth day of the month?" she thought.
July 15th in the lunar calendar was her birthday. After this day, she would be one year older.
"Thirty-four!" What a terrible number!
When she was fifteen or sixteen, she used to think that once a woman is over thirty, life becomes meaningless. She thought a woman in her thirties was like an old chrysanthemum in November, just waiting to wither.
Yet now she was thirty-four. She did not want to believe it, but she had to. Why was time so ruthless?
There was a bronze mirror in the corner of the room. She gazed at the face reflected in it.
The face looked very young, It had no wrinkles around the eyes even when smiling. Few would believe this to be the face of a thirty-four-year-old woman.
Although she could fool everyone else, she could not fool herself.
She turned around and poured herself a full cup of wine. The moon cast her long shadow onto the floor. Two lines of a famous poem came to her mind:
Raising the cup I invite the Moon,
Then turn to my shadow which makes three of us.
She had never really understood the loneliness and sadness it described until now.
In the distance she heard the sound of a baby crying.
She used to hate the sound of babies crying, but now, how she wanted a baby! How she wanted to hear the crying of her own baby!
Her face reflected the moonlight and a few glistening tears streamed down.
In the past few years, there had been several times when she thought about finding a man and just getting married. Yet she couldn't. Most men made her sick.
Her youth was fading away. In a few years, perhaps even those who she used to consider disgusting would not want her. Alas! A woman of 34!
Then she heard a loud laughter from a man passing by her door.
The laughter was raucous and seemed slightly intoxicated.
"What would this man be like?"
The man must be vulgar, ugly and probably stank of alcohol.
Yet if this man broke in now and begged her to marry him, she might say yes. "Does a woman become less picky when she is 34 than when she is 20?" she asked herself, her lips curling up slightly in a sad smile.
It was getting very late. All the sounds outside had died down.
Sporadic beatings of the night watches echoed in the far distance. The sounds were dull. Yet they marked the passing of time and life.
"It's time to go to bed." she said to herself.
Just as she rose and was going to close the window, she heard the distant sound of singing riding on the wind. The haunting voice, desolate and poignant, sounded so familiar.
Xiao Shiyi Lang!
She remembered that every time she met Xiao Shiyi Lang, he was humming this tune. He seemed aloof and distant.
Aroused by a strange excitement, without hesitating, she placed a hand on the window frame to support herself and then jumped out of, darting toward where the voice was coming from.
The long street was all quiet.
In front of the door of every household, the road was scattered with drifts of ash left after paper money had been burned. When a raw wind sprang up, the ash dispersed and started swirling in the air. In the dark no one knew how many ghosts might be waiting to snatch the burned money.
July 15 was also the Ghost Festival, when all of the spirits were let out. The gate of the hell was wide open now. Was it true that the world was filled with all kinds of spirits at the moment?
She bit her teeth and murmured, "Xiao Shiyi Lang, you are just like a ghost. Why don't you show yourself?"
Yet she didn't see any sign of ghosts around her. Even the sound of singing was gone.
She was greatly annoyed. "This guy is indeed a ghost. If he didn't want to see me, why did he let me hear his singing?"
She suddenly felt incredibly weary and depressed. She wanted to do nothing but go back and drink a few more cups of wine and then sleep. Perhaps everything would be different the next day.
Perhaps the main reason which keeps people going is that there is always a tomorrow.
When she saw candlelight radiating from her room, somehow she felt a thread of warmth in her heart, as if she was returning home.
When one comes home and closes the door, it seems that all worries can be left outside. This is what HOME is for.
"But is this really my home? No, this is just a room of an inn."
She drew a long sigh. She didn't know where her home was, and she didn't know when she would have a real home.
When she got to the doorway, she heard someone in the house reciting aloud the lines of a famous poem:
When I have been away from the border for one thousand miles,
Mr. Xiao will be just like another stranger to me.
Then she heard him saying, "Feng Siniang, my Feng Siniang, I'm afraid that you have forgotten me, haven't you?"
Feng came alive instantly. She jumped up and dashed into the house shouting, "You damned! You finally showed up!"
The wine in the jar on the table was gone.
A man was lying on the bed languidly, with his face covered by a pillow.
He was dressed in faded blue. A blue cloth band was tied casually around his waist and a saber was casually tucked into the band.
This saber was far shorter than regular swords. Its scabbard was made of worn-out black leather, but it looked newer than his boots.
He lay with one knee up, his other foot perched upon it. There were two big holes on the bottom of the shoe.
Feng jumped up and kicked his shoe, shouting harshly, "Lazybones! Lazy and dirty! Who said you could sleep on my bed?"
The man in the bed sighed and grunted, "I just took a bath last month, yet here you are saying that I'm dirty."
She could not help but chuckle, then she straightened up again. She grabbed the pillow covering his face and tossed it in the air. "Sit up and let me see how ugly you have become in the past few years."
Though the pillow had been flung off, the man in the bed still covered his face with his hands.
She said, "Have you become too ugly to look at?"
The man in the bed separated his fingers and revealed a pair of eyes, glistening and smiling. He quipped, "What a ferocious woman! No wonder you're not married yet. It seemed that other than me, no one dare marry you¡"
Before he could finish his words, Feng had slammed one of her hands down.
The man in the bed suddenly pulled back. His whole body stretched flat and stuck to the wall, like a paper-cut doll sticking to a flat surface. He just stayed there and refused to come down.
His bright eyes were still laughing, His eyebrows were rough, and his nose was straight. His short beard was so thick that it looked like it could prick the skin.
This man was not really handsome, but the glistening eyes and the bright smile made him seem to have an aura of beastial energy, untamed yet charismatic.
Feng gave a soft sigh and shook her head. "Xiao Shiyi Lang, you haven't changed, not even a bit. You are still 100% asshole in every sense and every way."
Xiao Shiyi Lang grinned. "I thought you wanted to marry me - an asshole. It appears that I was mistaken."
Her face burned with anger. She shouted, "Me marrying you? You think I would want to marry you? Even if all the other men in the world were dead, I would never marry you."
Xiao drew a long sigh of relief. "Good, I'm relieved."
He slid off from the wall and sat on the bed with a thump. He said with a laugh, "Honestly speaking, when I heard that you were looking for me, I was a little frightened. I'm only twenty-seven. Even if I want to get married, I prefer to find a young girl instead of an old crone like you."
Feng jumped up, shouting angrily, "You call me an old hag? How old do you say I am?!"
With a clang she drew a dagger from within her sleeve.
In a few seconds her sword had lunged toward him seven or eight times.
Xiao was even faster. He had scrambled back to the wall and climbed to the ceiling, staying there like a giant gecko. He waved his hand and said, "Please don't move. I was just joking. Actually you are not old at all. You look like you are forty something at most."
Though still trying to keep a straight face, Feng could not help but let out a chuckle and shook her head. "Luckily, I don't see you often. Otherwise, I would have died from getting mad at you long ago."
Xiao smiled. "There are too many people flattering you. Isn't it fun to have someone teasing you just for a change?"
He came down. His eyes rested on the dagger Feng was holding.
The dagger was a little over a foot in length. Its blade was very thin and had a greenish-blue shine. This kind of sword was most suitable for women. Madame Gongsun, the most famous swordswoman in the Tang Dynasty, used a similar dagger. She performed sword dances to make a living. Even the famous poet Du Fu had written a poem to extol her prowess:
A Great Dancer there was,
The Madame Gongsun,
And her 'Mine of the Sword'
Made the World marvel!
Those, many as the hills,
Who had watched breathless
Thought sky and earth themselves
moved to her rhythm.
As she flashed, the Nine Suns
fell to the Archer;
She flew, was a Sky God
on saddled dragon;
She came on, the pent storm
before it thunders;
And she ceased, the cold light
off frozen rivers!
Although Madame Gongsun was merely a professional sword dancer, this poem was a testament to the superiority of her sword skills. She was a petite woman. If she had not used this kind of dagger, she would not have been able to dance so deftly.
While Xiao was staring at the sword, Feng was staring at his eyes. All of a sudden, she turned her hand around and cut at the wine cup on the table with the dagger.
With a clang the green porcelain cup was cut into halves.
Xiao Shiyi Lang blurted out, "Excellent sword!"
Feng said with a faint smile, "Although this sword cannot cut iron as if cutting clay, it comes very close. Count Carefree cherished it so much that he was reluctant to let anyone else view it."
Xiao blinked and said with a smile, "Yet he gave it to you?"
Feng raised her head high. "Exactly."
"Does that mean he is interested in you?" he asked.
Feng smiled coldly, "So what? He cannot be interested in me? Am I really that old?"
He cast a look at her and sighed. "It's not easy to draw the attention of a man like Count Carefree. It's just that I wonder, how many concubines he had before you?"
Feng flew into a rage. "You're full of shit!"
She raised her sword again, and he ducked his head again.
Yet Feng lowered her sword slowly and looked at him out of the corners of her eyes. "If you are so smart, you should know the story behind this sword, then?"
"It appears to be Blue Jade, used by Shen Ruolan, Madame Gongsun's first disciple."
Feng nodded. "You do know something."
"But it comes in a pair. Since you have Blue Jade, you should have Red Glow as well. Unless..." he stopped.
"Unless what?" she asked.
Xiao said with a smirk, 'Unless Count Carefree was reluctant to give both to you."
She gave him a cold stare. "Even if I wanted his head, he would put it on a tray and offer it to me, not to mention two mere daggers."
Xiao laughed. "Really? In that case, where is Red Glow now?"
Feng said, "I don't mind if you take a look at it."
"I don't really want to look at it, but if I refuse to look at it, I'm afraid you will get mad again."
He grinned and said, "Remember what happened in October a few years ago? It was still very hot, yet you wore a mink coat and came to see me. Though you kept sweating, you insisted that you had to wear more clothing as you had caught cold."
Feng sneered, "Bullshit! You think I was trying to show off?"
Xiao smiled. "You're lucky to have something to show off. Unlike you, I have nothing to show off but myself."
Feng laughed. "You're such a clown!"
She took out the other dagger. Its sheath was inlaid with pink gemstones. Taking the sword, Xiao shook his head and quipped, "To no one's surprise, things used by women invariably smell of rouge and powder."
While still talking, he had started to draw the sword.
Red Glow turned out to be broken!
Feng didn't seem disturbed. She looked at him calmly and said, "Surprised?"
"How did such a fine weapon get destroyed?" Xiao asked.
"It was cut in half by a saber."
Xiao raised his eyebrows. "What saber? How could it be so sharp?"
Feng said nonchalantly, "I know every time you hear about fine swords, you itch for them. But this time I won't tell you about it, lest you say I'm a showoff."
Xiao rolled his eyes and then stood up saying, "As soon as I saw you, I got hungry. Let's go. I will treat you to midnight snack."
There was a small noodle shop at the end of the street.
It was said that this noodle shop had been started more than ten years ago. Furthermore, rain or shine, the noodle shop opened every day, even on holidays and festivals.
As a result, the town's night owls were especially fond of this place. If they were thrown out by their wives, they could come here to have steaming beef noodles.
Old Zhang, the boss, was indeed very old with graying hair. At this moment, he was sitting in his shop eating noodle soup. The paper lantern hanging at the door was blackened by greasy smoke. It looked yellowish black, just like Old Zhang's face.
All the customers who frequented this shop knew that his face never showed a flicker of expression. Other than asking for bill payment, he seldom said anything else.
Xiao smiled. "How about eating here?"
Feng frowned for a moment and then said hesitantly, "All right."
"Don't frown. I guarantee that you have never had beef noodles as delicious as these ."
Xiao sat at a shaky old table near the door and then called out, "Old Zhang! I have a guest today. Serve us something nice."
Without lifting his head, Old Chang gave Xiao a sidelong glance, as if saying, "What's the hurry? Wait until I have finished my soup."
Xiao shook his head and whispered, "This old man is a weirdo. Don't offend him."
The legendary Xiao Shiyi Lang dare not offend an old man who ran a noodle shop?! Who would believe this?! Feng was greatly amused.
After a long time, Old Zhang brought over two dishes and a jug of wine. He banged them down on the table and then turned right back.
Feng could not help but give a laugh. "Do you owe him money for the drinks?"
Xiao held his head high. "I did owe him a string of coins, but I paid him back yesterday."
She stared at him for a long time and then gave a soft sigh. "Everyone in the fighting circle says that Xiao Shiyi Lang is the finest connoisseur and professional thief of the past five hundred years. No one knows that in reality Xiao Shiyi Lang is so poor that he can only afford to treat his guests to cheap noodles, sometimes even on credit."
Xiao laughed out loud. "I know it and you know it. Isn't that enough? Come, let me toast you."
Xiao Shiyi Lang was a riddle. Some cursed him; some hated him; some loved him; yet few understood him.
He didn't wish to be understood, and he never thought about his own well-being.
If you were Feng Siniang, would you love him?
Feng had a remarkable skill in drinking. When people drink too much alcohol, they tend to get confused and bleary-eyed.
But she was different. The more she drank, the brighter her eyes became. No one could tell if she was intoxicated or not. That's why few people dared match her drinking, even though her tolerance for spirits was really not so high.