Flowers are shed as apricots bud. Swallows migrate, leaving water to others. Willow flowers scatter, spreading fragrance through the world.
The swing goes over the wall. Outside a man walks, inside a beautiful woman laughs. The laughter becomes sad. Passion is tormented by indifference.
Su Shi, “Butterflies Long For Flowers”.
Early spring. Balmy weather had come and the northern cold was gone. Hundreds of flowers bloomed vividly in the capital.
It was the fifteenth year of the rule of the Jiajing Emperor of the Great Ming dynasty. The emperor was in the prime of his life and diligently applying himself to governing. The land was at peace, the people were happy.
On this afternoon, the crisp, sweet chatter of young girls could be heard from a high walled courtyard in the southern part of the capital.
Two girls were playing on a swing in a flower bower in one part of the yard. Their laughter rang like silver bells through the splendid courtyard.
The older girl looked about eleven to twelve and wore a sleeveless embroidered top and a pleated goose yellow skirt. The younger was seven or eight. She wore a brocaded pink short jacket with cuffs embroidered in a soft green over ocean blue satin trousers, and a pair of shoes beaded and embroidered with tree peonies. She was very charming, with hair worn in two buns and twin dimples on her cheeks.
With their luxurious clothing and ornamentation, they were no doubt the noble daughters of a rich family.
The younger girl was named Han’er, and she was the only daughter of the Grand Secretary Zhou Mingdao. The older one was called Li Ling and was Han’er’s cousin.
The girls played on the swing in the yard until they grew bored. “Han’er, let’s play hide-and-seek, okay?” Li Lingling proposed.
Han’er clapped her hands in agreement and then covered her eyes. She giggled, “Go hide, cousin. I’ll be it. Quick, quick. I’ll find you in ten.”
Li Ling laughed, “Ai! Count slower, slower!” She hurried to jump off the swing and padded through the yard.
Han’er swung on the swing as she loudly counted to ten with her eyes covered. She took her hands away and laughed, “Here I come!” Shockingly, there was a man dressed in black five or six feet away.
Han’er froze in shock. She opened her mouth wide but no sound came out.
The tall, thin man held a shining sword with one hand. The other held his chest. He coughed twice and spit out a mouthful of blood.
He crashed to the ground, crushing two orchids under the flower bower while still holding his chest and coughing nonstop.
Only now did Han’er notice that he was wounded all over, his black clothing soaked in blood. He was bleeding heavily from his shoulder and leg.
How could a sheltered young girl like her have seen such a thing before? Scared stiff, she sat like a statue on the swing, even more unable to make a sound.
At this moment, three more figures appeared above. One of them barked, “He’s in here!” The three simultaneously landed, encircling the man in black. They pointed their blades at him.
Han’er recognized the golden brocade the three wore as the uniform of the Imperial bodyguards.
One of them said, “Did you think we wouldn’t follow you into the house of Grand Secretary Zhou?”
Another one, a fat man, said, “Give it to us already! We were once comrades. We could spare your life.”
The man in black laughed coldly. “Who was comrades with you? I, Zheng Hanqing, have never put scum like you in my eyes before!”
The fat man’s face became severe. He thrust his saber forwards.
The man in black was laying on ground, helpless and seemingly unable to move.
But he didn’t die from the attack; instead, the fat man yelled out and scrambled back. He put a hand on the slash bleeding on his cheek and cursed, “You fucking bitch!”
The other two had also somehow had their faces cut by the man in black. They cursed loudly and raised their blades over the man in black.
He didn’t try to resist, and only yelled, “It’s not on me!”
Hearing this, their swords paused.
The man on the left asked, “Where did you hide it?”
The other said, “He’s too crafty. Let’s capture him and hand him to Steward Hong to interrogate.”
The man in black shook his head. He said miserably, “Brother Wang, I don’t blame you if you want to capture me to complete your mission. You’re being professional. But do you know what I took?”
The man named Wang hesitated a little. “I know you took something important from the palace.”
The man in black said, “Did Steward Hong not tell you?”
“No.” Wang said.
The man in black spoke unhurriedly. “He didn’t tell you that it was something he himself stole from the palace? That’s why he sent you, whom he trusted, to recover it. Steward Hong will kill all of you if you learn what it is. I warn you not to look at it.”
Wang snorted. “I am loyal to Steward Hong. I don’t believe your bull! Despite being an Imperial bodyguard, you did something as vile as stealing from the palace. You are a disgrace!”
The man in black sighed and then turned to another man, “Brother Lin, do you believe me or Steward Hong?”
The man named Lin shook his head. “Zheng Hanqing, whatever you say is useless now. You’ve killed at least ten Imperial bodyguards while fleeing the palace. Even if you haven’t stolen anything, you still owe us too much blood.”
The man in black sighed, “If so, then I’ll let you fulfill your mission. Brother Lin, Brother Wang, it’s hidden in… It’s hidden in…cough cough…”
The men named Lin and Wang lowered their heads to hear his words.
The man in black suddenly leaped up, his longsword flashing silver in the air towards their throats. Blood sprayed. They looked up incredulously, then fell thrashing to the ground and were still.
The fat man’s round face paled. He screamed, turning to flee.
The man in black thrust out with his right hand. His longsword flew and stabbed the fat man in the back.
He fell but kept crawling for several feet, until he too stopped.
The man in black gasped for breath. He was panting heavily.
He made himself get up to kick the bodies of Lin and Wang into the underbrush, and then slowly made his way over to retrieve the longsword from the fat man’s back and kick him into a corner.
Then he turned towards Han’er, who was sitting on the swing.
Han’er had been scared silly by the terrifying and bloody battle. She was rooted in place as if caught in a nightmare.
The man in black slowly walked over. Every step he took required all his strength. If he fell, he might never be able to get up again.
Every step was painstaking, but at last he arrived before her. He crouched to face Han’er.
His face was covered in blood, his expression fierce. His eyes struck her like lightning. She trembled.
But what came out of his mouth next took her by surprise.
The man in black said: “You are the family’s daughter, Miss Han’er?” His tone was unexpectedly gentle.
Han’er hadn’t expected that this monstrous stranger would know her name. She was astounded but didn’t dare to not answer. So she nodded her head.
The man in black looked up gravely. He seemed to be thinking about something important.
He gave a deep sigh after a while, then reached to his chest, and withdrew a small square-shaped package. It seemed to contain a book.
He offered it to Han’er then once again grabbed his chest, coughing for a long time.
His face was increasing pale. He gasped, “Tonight at midnight, a woman and a girl will come to the well in your backyard. Give this parcel to the woman.”
His tone was stern. This was no plea but a command.
Zhou Han’er listened dumbly. She didn’t reply, didn’t reach for the parcel. She was too shocked to even feel fear.
The man in black said again, “Tell that woman to flee immediately to Tiger Mountain and seek the help of a married couple of chivalrous doctors. This parcel…this parcel, and the letter inside must definitely be delivered to them. Is that clear?”
He raised his voice at the end. Han’er was startled. She nodded her head promptly.
Then he said, “You can’t tell anyone but that woman about the things you’ve seen or what I’ve given you. Not even your parents. They’ll stay safe if you follow what I say. But your family will be ruined if you say anything! Remember, you must give this to them at tonight at midnight. If you don’t do as I say, I will come back to haunt you after I die!” His face became harsh.
Han’er turned white. The tears she’d been holding teemed in her eyes, at last spilling with an Ah.
His expression reverted to normal. He placed the parcel in her arms and gently said, “Good girl. You must do as I say. This is very, very important. You must do as I say, and give this to them tonight. You must not tell anyone about what this! No one! Do you understand?”
He gazed at Han’er until she nodded, crying. He broke out into a smile. He turned and slowly limped away, turning around again when he reached the wall. He said,
“Please… Please tell also the girl, that she absolutely must not open it until she turns twenty. And also… Also…tell her that when Daddy’s gone, to remember that she will always be Daddy’s beloved girl, always and always…always…”
He shuddered after choking out these words. Then he sunk to his knees and fell, disappearing among the flowers.
Han’er sat dazedly on the swing, motionless for a long time, as if awaiting to awaken and discover that that it was all a nightmare, not reality.
Time passed. A breeze chilled the sweat on Han’er’s back.
She heard a sudden shout behind her: ‘Han’er! Han’er! Why didn’t you come find me?’
Han’er was startled. She turned to see her cousin storming over.
Li Lingling has been hiding all along in the front yard. She’d come back since Han’er hadn’t come, and become furious upon seeing Han’er lost in thought on the swing. She was about to reproach Han’er when she noticed her pallor. Startled, she asked, “Han’er, what’s wrong?”
Han’er returned to her senses. “I…I…” she croaked, but couldn’t say anything.
She swallowed and jumped off the swing. She grabbed her cousin’s hand with sudden courage and walked towards the flower bower where the man in black had disappeared.
But while blood stained the flagstones among the flowers, the body of the man in black himself had disappeared.
Li Lingling didn’t notice the bloodstains in the growing darkness. Frightened by the eerie atmosphere, she said, “Han’er, let’s go back inside.”
Han’er was bewildered. She looked at the parcel in her arms, remembering that three other bodies were hidden in the yard. She became even more frightened. She hurriedly followed her cousin inside.