Chapter 3. Remained Old Friends
He would never mishear that voice anywhere, not even when he turned into ashes.
Back then, the sudden mention of He Lianyi from Bai Wuchang when they were beside the river did not manage to stir him emotionally. The passing years, coupled with his effort to forget, had buried that name in the deepest part of his memory and digging it up would be an almost impossible feat. But now, he would still remember it clearly as before. He remembered the many tricks that person had under his sleeves; he remembered his habits, like how when he touched Jing Qi’s forehead, he could not help but use his fingers to part his hair.
Those things seemed to have taken roots deep in his bones. Sometimes, Jing Qi would think about whether a Lord Seventh who waited beside the Stone of Three Lives for over sixty years would even exist, had he not been entangled with He Lianyi in a seemingly never-ending cycle.
Receiving bad karma was like being greeted with bird’s shit the moment you stepped out of the house. You could have had a hundred plans prepared to avoid it, but sooner or later there would always be a bird that came out of nowhere and dropped a piece of shit on your head, making you feel like bad luck would haunt you like a ghost from then on.
Jing Qi sighed internally. He knew his breathing pattern had changed the moment Ping An startled him awake, so there was no use feigning sleep. He opened his eyes.
In front of him was a young man who was only ten years old but had already possessed a noble-like aura.
Jing Qi thought, This He Lianyi is… still too green.
Seeing that he was awake, the young man’s angry expression faded. He quickly bent down and asked in a gentle voice. “Are you alright, do you feel unwell anywhere?”
In this human lifetime, it should have been natural for him to experience an onslaught of emotions when faced with the person he was once madly in love with and was deeply hurt by; but hundreds of years had passed.
At that moment, upon seeing him Jing Qi only felt a little out of his depth. He thought, This is He Lianyi? Why… why does he feel so unfamiliar?
He Lianyi thought his speechless daze was caused by the fever, so he put a palm on his forehead to check again. He then frowned and turned to the servants, “Is the medicine done brewing? We can’t let this fever draw out, it will mess with his head.”
My head is already messed up, Jing Qi thought. This fever should just burn me harder, so that I don’t have to deal with old things anymore.
When he finally came to his senses, he realized that he was lying down while his superior was still standing. Feeling unwell again, he tried to prop himself up, throat bobbing. “Your Highness…”
He Lianyi pressed him back down, laughing, “You seem to have learned some manners after this bout of illness. Just lie there, don’t move.”
Their current Emperor had some fairly bad habits, such as the moment he thought of something, he would execute it no matter what; or sometimes he would do silly, unimaginable things. Once he persisted to crown one of the Empress’s children and not his first child, and newborn He Lianyi was immediately given the title of Crown Prince when he had yet to be one month old. A few decades later, he would ignore his own heir without fail.
To put it bluntly, the Crown Prince’s importance to his father could not even compete with the latter’s pet starling which was raised in the study.
Furthermore, before He Lianyi there were his two vicious brothers – the Second Prince He Lianqi being ten years older and the First Prince He Lianzhao whose power and influence had already been well established. No one paid any mind to the “puppet” Crown Prince and only treated him as a joke, equating his existence to the likes of comedic tales such as “The Parrot General”, “The Imperial Tutor’s Wife”, or “The Story of the Prime Minister’s Advisor”.
The only one close to him was Prince Jing Beiyuan of Nan Ning, who was raised with him since they were little. The young orphan Jing Beiyuan had long gotten used to his uncle’s erratic and untamed behaviors, and was even influenced by him to some extent. He and He Lianyi could not be more different from each other whether it was personality or status, but they both shared one likeness: They grew up without their fathers’ attention.
He Lianyi sighed while tucking him in and patting him as if he was trying to appease a toddler. “I shouldn’t be saying this, but don’t drown yourself in grief; your father’s death was likely an escape for him. After the funeral you will come back to the palace with me, and everything will be the same as before.”
Jing Qi did not give a reply, and instead studied the boy’s profile intently.
At this moment, they were both children who had no one else but each other while growing up. The level of affection they had for each other could not be considered as shallow, and somehow along the way it had turned into vile animosity.
Jing Qi was startled to find out that the kind of love that acted like unbridled thorns in his heart back when he was waiting by the River of Forgetfulness was now fizzling out, flickering before vanishing completely, leaving a hollow space in his chest.
Seeing his sickness-induced watery eyes widened, He Lianyi could not help but poke him on the forehead. “Hey, Beiyuan?”
Jing Qi blinked. “Huh… Yes, I know.”
“And what do you know?” He Lianyi was torn between amusement and concern. Ping An brought them the medicine bowl at that moment, and he took it and told the servant to stand aside. He took it no himself to help Jing Qi sit up with the intention of spoon-feeding him.
The young man’s body inching closer carried with him a breath of warmth, and without a second thought, Jing Qi tried to scoot back in an attempt to evade, his back to the bed and one of his arms blocking the front of his chest.
Only after that did he remember when he was: This was their childhood, not the time when they turned their backs to each other; so this cautious defense would not do. He felt like his brain had turned into mush because of the fever, the memories of his past and current lives thrown into a state of disorder.
He Lianyi did not think much about it, and deduced that the pale face and the bolting back was because of the other’s aversion to drinking medicine. He laughed and tugged the back of the other’s neck with force, “Why are you hiding from this, how old are you?”
Taking advantage of the misunderstanding, Jing Qi put on a pained face that made him look like he was scared of the bitter liquid. He stared at the bowl, then at He Lianyi before shrinking back again.
He Lianyi looked down and took a small sip. He then turned to Ping An, “Get some sugared fruits for your master.”
For no reason at all, Ping An was terrified of their unfailingly gentle Crown Prince. He obeyed without any excessive talk and brought the fruits from a small table.
He Lianyi tried to coax Jing Qi into drinking. “It’s not that bitter, I just tasted it. Drink a bit and then I will feed you some fruits, alright?”
Jing Qi felt goosebumps breaking out on his body and finally understood what “the mind was enslaved to the body” meant. He quietly took the other side of the bowl and gulped it down with He Lianyi’s helping hand.
He and He Lianyi then had a nonsensical conversation consisting mostly of He Lianyi’s disguised persuasion, the rest was guarded replies by Jing Qi. There seemed to be something in the medicine that helped with sleeping, so after a while, he felt his eyelids drooping. He Lianyi was sitting by the bedside, voice soft. “Rest, I’ll leave after you have fallen asleep.”
Jing Qi closed his eyes in response, hearing a sigh from the other boy.
Of course he knew where that sigh came from; the Empress passed away too soon, and the Emperor was interested in anything but ruling the country. The First and Second Prince threw themselves into a bloody, lifelong rivalry; and while court officials burned their intelligence on fighting over who had the upper hand, when it came to actual work they all became utterly useless, to the point it could leave one enraged.
If He Lianyi was truly a gentle weakling like how he showed the world then there would be nothing worth noticing, but he was not.
Jing Qi knew it better than anyone that in the young man’s heart there was only the sight of this country; he was born to shake the world and reached unsurmountable heights. Sometimes Jing Qi was suspicious that their Emperor, whose greatest interest was listening to that shaggy damn bird cussing out his entire court, had done something exceptional in his past life¹. How else did he manage to give birth to such an individual worthy of the Crown Prince title?
Silence fell over the room, and the air smelled vaguely like fragrance on He Lianyi’s body. Jing Qi’s head turned muddled and he quickly fell asleep despite everything. Ping An woke him up at night fall. He was sweating buckets but the fever had gone down, his mind sobering some more.
Tonight was the first night of his father’s First Seven, with all the guests being well accommodated when they visited. Once the guests were all gone, it was the duty of a good son to keep watch beside his father’s coffin. After a quick bath, Jing Qi stumbled out. He waved away Ping An’s attempt to help. “I’m alright, you just go lead the way.”
The funeral hall carried a gloomy atmosphere. Big white lanterns were hung at the door, and the wind made them tremble, looking like they were leading to the underworld. Their old butler was already waiting with incense, paper and candles prepared.
Seeing that he had come, he told the servants to bring their master a cloak made of fox’s fur to put on when the night came.
Jing Qi, after a lifetime suffering being skinned as a fox, felt a surge of revulsion at the piece of clothing. But not wanting to shame his butler, he stood still with only a frown present and let the old man fasten the cloak with quivering hands.
Afterwards, his tiny hands reached out to scratch the cloak a few times while he internally mourned, Tonight I’ll burn lots of paper money² for you too, brother, please keep them with care as preparation and try not to be reborn as this animal again.
The old butler held his small hands and led him to stand in front of the memorial tablet. he bowed, “Young master, you should bow to His Highness. The Residence is your responsibility from now on.”
His countenance showed the resignation typical of old people who knew they were near death. With perfect manners, Jing Qi knelt down and bowed deeply before the father whose face he had long forgotten.
The First Seven was the time for the spirits to return to say their final goodbye. Jing Qi had no idea if his father, obsessed with chasing after his wife, still remembered that he had a son. He also did not expect to be here, back in the mortal world, and somewhat wistfully wondered whether he could see the realm under again.
He might not harbor love for it, but now that he could live a second life, meeting old friends… did not seem like a bad thing.
At that moment, a servant came in to tell them that the Supreme General of Ping Xi was here, prompting the butler to cast a look at Jing Qi. The boy startled, then spoke up, “Invite him in.” There was a hint of excitement in his voice.
Supreme General Feng Yuanji of Ping Xi was one of his father’s very few close friends back when he was alive. Jing Qi could actually call him shifu, since all of his amateur kungfu was obtained under the general’s training.
Soon enough, a robust man strode in, followed by Ping An at a slower pace.
Jing Qi knew the elder man cared none about customs, so instead of performing a formal salutation, he only greeted with a somber smile—he remembered all too well that Feng Xuanji’s current lifetime would soon come to an end.
Feng Xuanji, in contrast, thought the attitude was because his grief was still fresh. He sighed and ruffled the boy’s hair with his giant hand. “You have suffered a lot.” He turned to knelt and bowed before his father once while Jing Qi returned the courtesy. He then said to Ping An, “Bring another prayer mat for the General.”
The butler opened his mouth, “This is…”
Jing Qi cut him off. “There’s no harm, just do what I say. And both of you leave, I have something to say to the General.”
After a lifetime of being loyal to the Residence, the old butler put customs and orders before anything else. Jing Qi might only be ten years old, but since His Lordship had passed away, whatever his son said he would follow. He bowed and left without a word.
There were only two of them left with the brazier. Feng Yuanji sat on the mat without any grace; it was not in his nature to be gentle and tactful since all his life was made up of battles. He thought it over for a long time but did not know how to start, so in the end he only said clumsily, “This manchild Mingzhi was truly useless back when he’s alive, and now that he’s left, you… Your body looks so thin, need to look after yourself more.”
Jing Qi smiled, stretching his legs as he sat down. He threw some paper money into the brazier distractedly, “I’m fine, but you are leaving the capital soon, aren’t you?”
Feng Yuanji was taken aback and gaped at him, “How did you know?”
¹ The original slang literally translates to “Stepping on dog’s shit”, meaning that one has trampled all the bad luck under their feet and there will only be god fortune awaiting them from now on.
² In many Asian countries, paper money, or spirit money, are burned with other paper items during the funeral with the belief that the spirits can carry those items with them to the afterlife.