The epilogues are an integral part of the story and form a mini-story by themselves with interlinking t.i.tles. The first story is about Ting Wei, Xu Zhi’s supposed enemy in court, but who let her through the City Gates when the Emperor has ordered her arrest. After reading this, I think there is a high possibility that Xu Zhi is really telling the truth when she claims that his letter to her (to release her prisoners to the court) is merely a way to let her admire his calligraphy.
If you are wondering why Ting Wei sounds like a different person than Gong Sun Ling, it is because ancient Chinese have several names – the name they are given before they come of age, the name which is officially recorded in the ancestral records when they marry and come of age, and for the rich and influential, another name upon burial. I could have missed something as I summarize this long epilogue into something that is only 3,400 words, but Ting Wei is likely an official t.i.tle while Gong Sun Ling is likely his name before he comes of age.
Just a heads up – due to some work contingencies, I will upload the next installment of “Pursuit of Murderer” in another 2 weeks time, and after that, I’ll come back with the remaining 2 epilogues of “A Straight Road” on a weekly basis. In the meantime, stay well, and stay happy.
Epilogue 1; The Legacy of Xu Zhi’s First a.s.sistant
He studies the little girl reading on the library steps and suppresses a shudder. It sounds like a joke but he, a 17-year old man, is afraid of this 8-year old, who is way, way smarter than himself. Worse still, she has a penchant of asking questions which he has no answers.
When his entire family was sentenced to death, His Majesty has offered him a pardon since he is supposedly very intelligent; if he agrees to be a person around Xu Zhi and serve as her personal a.s.sistant. Looking back, he wonders if the true intention of His Majesty is to shame him into committing suicide, so that his death need not be attributed to the list of lives that His Majesty has taken, and therefore lighten his sins.
Are 8-year olds not supposed to eat sweets and play all day? Why is his little mistress forever studying and asking questions?
He sighs inwardly and adjusts his position so that his body can block more of the sunlight from falling directly over the book that she is reading. She is oblivious to his shadow however, and continues reading. Thinking that he needs to change tracks if he wants to get into her good books, he pulls out some colorful sweets he has bought earlier, which the seller has guaranteed him to be a hit with children. “Look Da Gu Niang, these are candies from another country which we saw on the street earlier.”
She glances at his offering and goes back to reading. “You can have them.”
He keeps the sweets and continues good-naturedly. “Da Gu Niang, the great fortune teller Master Yuan Tu will be visiting in 2 days time, to read the fortunes of you and your sisters. Are you nervous? If you are, you need not be. We, Xi Xuan people, believe that the glories of our life are carved in our bones and they will not change. And since it is something which we have no control over, then there is nothing to worrying about since it solves nothing.”
She turns her pretty face towards him which hints at her beauty in future. “I am not nervous. I am more curious in Yuan Tu as a person, than anything that he has to say. If our glory are indeed carved in our bones, I am interested to know how he manages to read them? Is there something different with his eyes? Can we dig out his eyes and study them?”
“Do such eyes only appear among Xi Xuan people? How about say, people from Wei? Do they have people with such special eyes? If there are, whose eyes are more accurate? Xi Xuan and Wei are only separated by the Li River. It is such a small divide but why are the people and customs so different in both countries?”
I am sorry Your Majesty, can I go back to jail? I am truly ashamed at my lacking; that I have never thought to ask deeper despite reading heaps of books. Please, may I go back?
Unaware of his inner turmoil, Xu Zhi leans in closer and stares into his eyes. He wanders if she is going to ask that he digs out his eyes for her to study and tries to sound calm. “Yes Da Gu Niang, what can I do for you?”
“Many ladies have told me that they are very alluring, but is anything the matter?” Please don’t ask me for my eyes….
She is not usually interested in studying people but it occurs to her that she really knows too little about this man who is always by her side. “Your eyes are different from most people. Yours are single-lidded.”
She smiles impishly. “I wonder if this has anything to do with your genes? Your calligraphy is excellent. Can it be that people with single-eye lids can write better than people with double eyelids? Do you think if there is a correlation?”
“Da Gu Niang, I have not thought that you would know about my family being so young of age.” His tone gentles. “During the earlier years when we fought a lot of wars, Xi Xuan conquered many small tribes and merged them under one nation. With your keen interest in history and culture, I am sure Da Gu Niang would have noticed by now that many of the wives and concubines of the officials in court are from minority groups. It is worth mentioning that even the mother of the Second Prince is also from a minority tribe who are well-known for being beautiful and gentle. My mother is also from a minority tribe and most of her people have single-eyelids.”
Thinking of his late mother, he remembers her wish for him to marry a woman from her tribe and pa.s.s on their heritage. To honor her wish, he thinks that he would indeed marry such a woman when he leaves Xu Zhi’s service, have lots of children, and settle down in a place that is as close to his mother’s home hometown as possible. Maybe he can be a small official there but then, what is going to happen to Xu Zhi if he is no longer by his side?
“It is common for minority groups who are forced to merge into a bigger culture to want to marry someone from the same tribe in order to continue the heritage. Will you do the same in future?”
He is shocked at her perception and feels like he can have no secrets before her eyes. But as intelligent as she may be, this girl – who is nearly young enough to be his daughter – can be downright worrisome at times. He takes a deep breath and changes topic. “Da Gu Niang, about the thing that you did at the palace today, you must never, ever to let a third person know about it.”
Of course! He is supposed to be around her at all times, her shadow, how can he not see what she did! But does she have the slightest regard to the presence of a third person?
Zhou Wen Cheng, a brutal emperor for his entire life – that is what Yuan Tu wrote down on a piece of paper, and what did this young lady do? She imitated Yuan Tu’s handwriting, wrote ‘Zhou Wen Cheng, a righteous emperor for his entire life’, and swapped his prediction with hers when she delivered the predictions to His Majesty. Did she not know that this is considered lying to His Majesty and punishable by death? “Why did you do it? Are you trying to seek revenge on Yuan Tu who has perhaps angered you in some way?”
“No, of course not. I am just curious why no one doubt his predictions and actually make effort to live them out. Are his predictions really accurate or are they just self-fulfilling prophecies?”
“But,” he protests. “When he predicted your future, you are truely an outstanding young scholar…”
She waves her hand. “My case cannot be counted. Before he predicted my future, I have already decided what I wanted to do in future and his words are merely a reflection of my decision. Surely, you do not expect me to change my life goals just to spite him? Besides, Zhou Wen Cheng is the only person that he has predicted to be king. All the other princes are either going to be buried in unknown hills or meet with other misfortune, so besides him, there is really no other future-Emperors around for me to test my theory.” Her eyes light up with an unholy gleam. “Isn’t this an outcome worth waiting for? If Zhou Wen Cheng is indeed a brute, can he successfully defy the ruthless streak in his bones and to become a righteous king that Yuan Tu ‘predicted’? Or can he turn contrary and turns out to be a brutal Emperor after all?”
When he tries to argue, she counters. “Ah Ling, isn’t this good? If Zhou Wen Cheng did turn out to be a good emperor instead of a bad one, I would have done a good deed for the Xi Xuan people!”
“I am just afraid that you will be discovered and lose your life over it. “ After giving it some thought, he continues. “Da Gu Niang, promise me. If you are found out one day, just say that I am the one who swapped the prophecy.”
She looks at him quizzedly, unsure at why he wanted to do that but he merely smiles and did not comment further. In truth, he envies her world – it is a clean world with only the pursuit of knowledge. In her world, there is no jealousy, liking, happiness, or betrayals. If he can have his way, he hopes that she can remain in such a world forever, which is why there is no need for her to know how he feels.
As he accompanies her while she reads, his mind jumps to the future. His young mistress is unconcerned about proper behavior for ladies and it is best if he can find a thoughtful and loyal maid for her. He has no illusions that His Majesty will let him stay by her side after his term ends, for familiarity breeds loyalty and there is no way His Majesty would allow his subjects to be loyal to another person other than him, so he will need to settle this before he leaves.
That night, when he tucks her in to bed, he noticed that she is cradlng her head in her hands and he asked her on what is wrong. “Nothing much, just a headache.”
“Headache?” He leans in closer to check on her carefully and notes that her face is pale, while her forehead is beaded in perspiration. Is this ‘nothing’? “Let me get the doctor….”
“No need. I have taken some medicine and it has always been like this. Sometimes the meds will help to make the headache go away but if it doesn’t, it will disappear by itself after a while and in the meantime, I just need to bear with it.”
He is shocked that he has never noticed her headache before today although he is aware that she has some medication which she takes regularly. He has a.s.sumed that the medicine is some tonic for ladies but it seems to be some kind painkiller. Has she endured her pain in silence all this while? “Da Gu Niang, is there anything I can do for you?”
“Help me?” Her tone is curious. “Can you suffer the headache on my behalf?”
He has no reply for her and after a while, he suggests that she gets dressed. “Let us go for a stroll. Sometimes when I have something that bothers me, I would walk around the lake and it would help soothe my spirits. If this works for me, it may work for you as well.”
She studies his face. “Is this a custom from your mother’s tribe?”
He is amused at the direction of her thoughts and gentles his tone. “Yes. I know that Da Gu Niang is someone who love to test out her theories, so shall we take the stroll and see if this myth is true?”
But she is tired and in the end, he has to piggy-back her around the lake. Although she is already eight, the weight on his back is not heavy at all, he thinks.
Compared to his emotional turmoil when he first came into the household, the peaceful night tonight is simply heaven. Although it is demeaning to become a personal a.s.sistant of a young woman, but the tranquility for the past few years far exceed the scheming and betrayals in court. If he has a choice, he would rather stay here forever.
“Da Gu Niang, how did your headache start? Can it be cured?”
“I am born with it so I think it is not possible to cure. At least, that is what the doctors told me.”
“The doctors in Xi Xuan are not as competent as those in Wei. Can Da Gu Niang endure a trip to Wei to seek the help of the doctors there?”
“Do you think that I will be allowed to leave the country before I achieve the t.i.tle of Xi Xuan Xu Zhi?”
Indeed, he has forgotten that His Majesty believes in her prophecy of being a great scholar and will not allow her to leave the country. Drat that Yuan Tu! “It is ok, if you cannot leave the country, we can still think of ways to make the doctors of Wei visit you in Xi Xuan instead. You are so smart, I am sure you can think of a way to achieve that. And if becomes customary over time for Wei doctors to visit Xi Xuan at least once in their professional lifetime, you would have created a new custom. Isn’t the idea a challenge?”
She did not reply and he knows that she is mulling over his idea. That is Xu Zhi for you. Always thinking, always mulling over possibilities.
“Ah Ling,” she says suddenly. “My headache does seem slightly better. Your mother’s customs are indeed interesting. Why can walking around a lake help to relief headache? Is it because that the air is slightly cooler around a lake, or is there some other reason?”
He smiles to hear the good news. “Perhaps ‘customs’ are just things that future generations continue to do after forgetting the reason for doing so. But I am glad to hear that your headache is better. If you have another headaches again, maybe you can stroll around the lake in future.”
She makes a sound of acknowledgement and did not say more. After a while, he hears her even breathing and knows that she has fallen asleep. As he carries her back to her bedroom, he reflects on his recent years. He is immensely grateful to Xu Zhi for being the reason to be granted a pardon, or he would have died and his family line would have ended with him, which would be a shame to his family. Since coming to her service, Xu Zhi has never requested him to do much for her and most of the time, he is merely a companion to her as she reads.
In a few more years, His Majesty will transfer him out of her service and will surely disallow further contact between them. Xu Zhi is not a prominent person in Xi Xuan at the moment, but he is sure that she is going to outshine everyone in another few years. Once that happens, His Majesty will not leave her out of his sight and will monitor her movements closely. Until the time comes when it is no longer possible to keep her from the dangers of mingling too closely with the royal family, he must help to hide her brightness and groom a new knight for her.
Xu Zhi looks over his shoulder to peer at his words. “Your calligraphy is simply excellent!”
He smiles and continues writing without looking up. A few years have pa.s.sed and it is no longer appropriate for him to piggy-back her around the lake whenever she has a headache. He has already heard rumors that Xu Zhi’s a.s.sistant sees to “all her needs” which includes warming her bed, so someone must have seen him carrying her back to her bedroom one night and said something. She should have heard the rumors as well but if she makes no attempt to clarify matters, he does not see the need to do the same either.
His calligraphy is the best in the country and when she observes how he writes, she becomes so focused that she forgets about her headache. If he can help to elevate her pain by writing, he is happy to continue writing to the end of time. She is like a daughter to him and he is willing to treat her like one for his whole life. “Da Gu Niang.”
“I think His Majesty will be casting his net on the Li family next. They have an outstanding son called Li Zai Lin and if my guess is correct, His Majesty will likely a.s.sign him to be your next a.s.sistant.”
“I have become closer to the Crown Prince in recent years and although you have never asked me why, I know it is because you do not really care and because you trust me. For that reason, I would like to let Da Gu Niang know that I would likely be serving the Crown Prince once I leave your service.”
When she only looks at him without commenting, he continues. “I will never tell anyone about Yuan Tu and neither must you. Given my capabilities, I believe His Highness will give more responsibilities in the future and to prove my loyalty, I will likely do something that seems to severe our relationship.” He looks at her intently and p.r.o.nounces his next words clearly. “Da Gu Niang , so long as I am in the Capital, I will definitely protect you. You must continue to be true to yourself and do things without regrets or hesitation. So long as Xu Zhi exists doing what she wants, that will be the reason for my existence.
When she only studies him, he continues slyly. “Li Zai Lin is not exactly a good man. When he serves you in future, you must remember not to be too friendly towards him.” It is bulls.h.i.t, he knows. That young Li is an easy-going chap and seems like a gentle scholar especially when he smiles. But he has a rebel streak and may just intrigue an innocent maiden enough to cheat her heart.
She replies honestly. “Actually, I have no objection on who serves me.”
“You sure break my heart with that statement.” Accustomed to her heartlessness, he smiles at her nonchalance. In truth, he has never been so happy at her heartlessness until now. If not, how can he be a.s.sured that she will not loose her head (heart?) at the first handsome young chap who crocks an inviting finger to her?
Based on his understanding of her character, Xu Zhi is quite blind towards people whom she can order around. But if she encounters someone who contradicts her or challenge her thoughts, she would pay a lot of attention to such a person.
Looking at the beautiful maiden standing before him, he sighs to himself that she has indeed grown up to be a beauty. But unlike normal beauties, the unique beauty of Xu Zhi lies in her enthusiasm in the pursuit of knowledge. A normal man may appreciate her for her looks, but can he really appreciate the person beneath? Will he be willing to shelter her from the storms in life, and do everything that is to her best interest?
To make sure that she gets the best of care from her next a.s.sistant without being romantically involved with him, he decides he will instruct his inc.u.mbent that Xu Zhi is someone who prefers her servants to be obedient, quiet and never, ever to question her instructions. And if he cannot meet her expectations, His Majesty will not hesitate to replace him. That should be enough to scare the young rascal to toe the line. The chap better expect to protect her instead of expecting her to protect him or else, heh-heh….
Before they part, he smiles widely at her. “Although Da Gu Niang likes to call me Ah Ling, my surname is ‘Gong Sun’. Please remember Da Gu NIang, that your first a.s.sistant is called Gong Sun Ling.”
She ‘ohh’ in response. “I will remember that, Gong Sun Ling.”