"On those bridges hung a variety of bright lanterns, and the entire scene looked like a dreamscape."
Editor(s): juurensha, namio
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The autumn wind was bleak as twilight fell. The members of the Exorcism Department excitedly followed behind Li Jinglong as they went to the brothel following the imperial decree.
“In a bit, restrain yourselves a little,” Li Jinglong specially commanded.
“Ai yah! Captain Li! No, no, it’s Li-zhangshi -- !”
Nightingale of the Spring Dawn was the biggest and most luxurious entertainment house and brothel in Chang’an, and it looked down on even the scholarly Yishi Lan. This place was filled with the tinkling of the cherry red, willow-green realm, his manner became smug and self-confident.
“Today I won’t be playing,” A-Tai said. “I’ll listen to you all instead.”
The gathered women were left disappointed beyond belief as the old proprietress showed the five of them to the most grandiose, luxurious seats in the entire hall. When Li Jinglong walked through, the song and dance in the hall had yet to begin and the customers were laughing and chatting up a storm, but when they saw Li Jinglong pass by, they all quieted.
When Li Jinglong passed by the side of Nightingale of the Spring Dawn, he purposefully pressed close to the large pool where several koi fish were kept. He deftly shook the cloth bag, sending the carp yao into the pool.
“Have fun playing around,” Li Jinglong said.
“Thank you!” The carp yao stuck out his head from the water, before diving back in with a smug and self-confident manner into the school of fish. The fish were startled and fled in all four directions, and the carp yao hugged one of the koi, shouting, “Don’t go! Beauty!”
Not long after, the buzz of chatter came back once again. The hot topic of conversation throughout all of Chang’an was naturally what had happened at the imperial examinations, and with Li Jinglong catching the yaos, the whole city was in an uproar. The news could not be stopped, and it traveled at light speed; rumors were rumors, and everywhere resounded with speculation about this group of people.
The servant led them to the largest seating area in the hall before setting up a screen and inviting them to sit down. Three of them were to the left, while two were to the right; Qiu Yongsi and A-Tai sat on one side, while Li Jinglong, Hongjun, and Mo Rigen sat on the other. Li Jinglong then asked for another smaller screen to be brought over to block off the left and the right, completely hiding A-Tai and Qiu Yongsi, the two who often went to brothels, from the rest, to prevent young children from learning bad habits.
The three of them directly faced that glittering hall, which covered almost a half-acre and was decorated in an extremely luxurious and ornate fashion. Despite the folding screen being erected, the sound of women laughing and talking floated over to them. When Hongjun lifted his head once again, he saw that of the three levels of Nightingale of the Spring Dawn, each was taller than the last, and there were even wooden bridges constructed overhead. On those bridges hung a variety of bright lanterns, and the entire scene looked like a dreamscape.
“Young masters, which of our girls are you looking favorably upon?”
“None,” Li Jinglong crisply rejected the old proprietress.
“Then let the girls…”
Li Jinglong: “No need.”
“The other two young masters, do you need…”
Li Jinglong: “Not necessary.”
Mo Rigen: “...”
“What did we come here for?” Hongjun asked Mo Rigen.
Mo Rigen felt this was very amusing, and he responded, “You have to ask Zhangshi that, I don’t know.”
Li Jinglong was eating the grapes on the table. He answered, “Listen to music, watch the dances, spend some money, and after that, we’ll go back to the Exorcism Department to sleep.”
Hongjun asked, “In a bit, will there be people dancing?”
Li Jinglong: “Yes, and there’ll be qin players too… Mo Rigen, if you want to find a girl, go sit on the other side of the screen.”
Mo Rigen smiled. “I told you that I need to save my first time. Tonight I’m only here to listen to the qin and the music.”
“Save it?” Li Jinglong was a little taken aback.
Mo Rigen thought for a moment before he nodded, and Li Jinglong didn’t bother asking anymore. Mo Rigen then continued, “Zhangshi won’t let Hongjun…”
“He doesn’t need to.” Li Jinglong mercilessly cut off Mo Rigen’s sentence, before looking at Hongjun and asking, “Am I right?”
Hongjun thought of what Li Jinglong had explained to him that night. Originally he had been a little amused, but now that a bucket of cold water had been poured on him, he couldn’t resist retaliating slightly, so he said, “Actually I could also use some.”
“Then go sit next door.” Li Jinglong pointed at Qiu Yongsi and A-Tai. “This side is for the proper people. Do you want to sit with us or go next door?”
Hongjun thought about it, but he could only admit defeat, and he said, “I’ll stay here.”
Li Jinglong said, “Think about it well, you’re not allowed to change seats again. In a little bit we’re going to eat cherry biluo.”
Hongjun: “What? Eat what? What are cherry biluo? I’m not going to that side anymore, so… can I have a little wine?”
Drinking wine was alright, and Li Jinglong gladly ordered some food and wine before sending the servant to the store that General Han had opened next door to buy some cherry biluo. Hongjun was as easy to please as ever; of the two pleasures in life of food and lust, he didn’t care for lust when food would appease him just as easily, let alone when everything Li Jinglong spoke of sounded very tasty.
“But young masters, in a bit when the song and dance start, there must be someone to attend to you and pour the wine.” The old proprietress came by again. She asked, “How about we find one for you who will sit properly in the corner?”
Li Jinglong was just about to refuse, but Hongjun suddenly remembered something, and he asked the old proprietress, “Do you know Sang’er?”
The old proprietress immediately responded with “yes, yes, I do”, before turning and chiding someone to get her, and Li Jinglong could only let sit back and let things happen. Hongjun said, “I definitely won’t try to do anything here.”
“You seem to understand pretty well,” Mo Rigen smiled.
In a flash Sang’er hurried over, and Hongjun greeted her. At the heart of it, Sang’er was the first “friend” that he had made when he came to Chang’an, and seeing her again made him very happy. Technically, Sang’er was only one of the numerous attendants for the girls in Nightingale of the Spring Dawn, and she had never expected a customer to request her specifically, and on top of that, a top-level patron at that, so she was also inordinately pleased.
When the two of them saw each other, they both started smiling. Sang’er looked at Li Jinglong before looking back at Hongjun, and Li JInglong was filled with suspicion: how exactly was Hongjun connected with this “Sang’er”? Suddenly, Sang’er spoke, “Yo, it’s Captain Li! You two got together! When did you get close with him?”
Li Jinglong was currently drinking water, and at that moment he spat it all out. To the side, Mo Rigen was laughing so hard he slumped sideways on the table.
“We’ve been together for a long time!” Hongjun smiled. “Sang’er, how about you come here and pour wine for us? I’ll give you money!”
Sang’er grinned as she knelt on the seating area, lifting up the pitcher and beginning to pour out the wine. In that pitcher was an excellent Lanling Daqu, which had been brewed to an amber color. When it was poured out in a white porcelain bowl, the scent of the wine wafted through the air, perfectly matching the phrase, “Lanling’s fine wine is like a tulip, in a jade bowl it produces an amber light”; this was the best wine they had in the establishment.
“Don’t drink too much,” Li Jinglong commanded Hongjun. “This wine is strong.”
Mo Rigen was eating some of the dried fruits, and he remarked amusedly, “Isn’t this vinegar?”
Sang’er said, “How could it be! This is the best wine we have!”
Mo Rigen rubbed his nose and said, “But why is it that I always feel this area around us smells pretty sour.”
Li Jinglong: “...”
Sang’er understood what Mo Rigen was hinting at, and she also began to smile as she hurried to say, “Young master, if you could move over a little…”
Li Jinglong said, “Mo Rigen, you…”
Sang’er kept shooing Hongjun towards Li Jinglong’s side before moving her seat over, sitting next to Mo Rigen, and Mo Rigen smiled. “Now, this is more like it.”
They shifted so that Hongjun was sitting right next to Li Jinglong, and he had to lean over a bit to talk with Sang’er. His back was resting against half of Li Jinglong’s body, and Li Jinglong let Hongjun lean up against him, saying nothing more. Not long after, the servant brought out the cherry biluo that he had bought, and everyone let out a wa sound.
Those cherry biluo were made with preserved cherries as the main filling, and within the egg-based shell was wrapped roasted lamb tenderloin meat, fresh cheese, thin strands of okra, vegetable centers, and similar fillings. The entire thing was steamed until it was cooked through, before chopped mint leaves were sprinkled on top. It was delicious, sweet, savory, and tasty, and in the mouth it didn’t feel too rich.
“What tasty thing did you get?” Qiu Yongsi stuck his head out from next door to look, and what he saw was truly amazing. He hurried to ask, “From General Han’s?”
“Only this table has it,” Li Jinglong responded coldly. “If you want to eat it, go buy your own.”
Li Jinglong had bought four portions, but he hadn’t expected Sang’er to join them, so he could only give a portion to her as well. After Hongjun inhaled his portion he asked, “Is there more? Let’s get some more.”
Instead, Li Jinglong handed his own portion over for him to eat before turning his head to look over the great hall, thinking in his heart, why haven’t they started yet? And when he turned his head back around to look at Hongjun, that other cherry biluo had also vanished.
“Is there more?” Hongjun asked again.
“Are you learning from Zhao Zilong?” Li Jinglong said. “Swallowing things whole when you eat?”
Hongjun said, “But I finished it.”
Li Jinglong could only respond, “There’s no more. I can’t let you eat until you’re satisfied, so that you keep thinking of it.”
Hongjun could only take it as it was, and he began to wonder if he would be able to get the half that Mo Rigen still had in his hand, but Mo Rigen had already nearly finished his own. Li Jinglong said, “There are so many delicious things in the world. Someday I’ll take you to go try them all out slowly.”
Up on the second and third floors above their heads, the servants had already passed by and extinguished the lanterns. The hall dimmed accordingly, and the chatter ceased. In the darkness, a “ding” resounded, and the entire hall fell silent. Soon after that, a pipa began to play, and that music was like flowing water; the continued strumming was like white snow thundering down a tall mountain in an avalanche, turning into millions of water droplets, raining down onto the audience.
When it ceased to sound, several more pipa began to play, blending seamlessly with that lead pipa, as if hundreds of birds were following after the phoenix as they continued to strum. That sound enveloped the entire hall and echoed upwards into the sky above!
After hearing these talented ten fingers plucking the strings, everyone let out cheers and began to applaud. Hongjun had long since forgotten what he wanted to say as he hurried to turn and peer into the hall, his eyes filled with joy; it really sounded too good!
A bird’s warble sounded; it was a kouji performer. Soon after, all the folding screens successively lit up, and the girls who had been waiting beneath the folding screens each lifted up the glazed bowl they had in their hands. In each bowl was a light, and the multicolored lights left the folding screens, walking towards the center of the hall with rapid steps.
On the second and third floors, the accompanying dancers revealed themselves one by one. With their uniform beauty and their uniform dance of the warblers, their hands holding lanterns, their waists tied with satin, they descended from the heights with a shua sound.
“Wa…” This was the first time in Hongjun’s life that he had seen such a scene. Li Jinglong explained to him, “Nightingale of the Spring Dawn, just like its name.”
The richly decorated glazed glass bowls twinkled like the light of spring, and the dancers twirled around in front of the long seating area that they were on, sweet smiles on their faces.
Some people in the hall had seen this dance before, but they couldn’t resist cheering anyways. Hongjun exclaimed, “This is too beautiful!”
As if hundreds of birds were welcoming the spring, and life was springing up abundantly, the dancers carrying the glass bowls first gathered in the middle, before spreading out to the sides, revealing a folding screen that looked more like something from a revolving scenic lantern. Behind that folding screen was the shadow of a graceful person holding a pipa in their hand; it was indeed the concertmaster of the music earlier.
A round of pipa sounds once again resounded, and that woman gently opened her lips and began to sing. “In the morning rain and light dust of Wei City, the inn was as green as the green willows…”
That piece was called “The Three Refrains of Yang Pass”, and it was a musical piece that had been most widely popularized recently in Chang’an. Though it had been played countless times, this beautiful spring scene, where the shadows on the sides slowly disappeared under the light, lent it a completely new flavor.
Sang’er bent over and shuffled away to get more wine. Hongjun felt that he was a little tipsy, and he leaned against Li Jinglong’s shoulder, dazedly watching that woman on the pipa, singing along softly, “I urge this gentleman to have another cup of wine…”
One of Li Jinglong’s hands was on the table, gently tapping against the side of Hongjun’s hand as the two of them sang in unison under their breaths, “...going east out of Yang Pass… there are no enemies…”
The stage that the pipa woman sat on was slowly pushed towards Li Jinglong’s and Hongjun’s area under the combined efforts of the group of the women, and as the song ended she blended it with another piece. Her gentle voice sang, “The grasses in the north are as green as jade, and the mulberries lower their green branches…”
“Li Bai! It’s one of Li Bai’s!” Upon hearing his idol’s poem, Hongjun immediately grew excited.
Li Jinglong couldn’t resist smiling at that, and he put one hand on Hongjun’s shoulder. The pipa woman had been pushed until she was in front of their seat, and she stared into Hongjun’s eyes as she sang, “When you recall the days of the past, it is time for my heart to break…”
Hongjun began to smile as well. This was really too pleasing for both the eye and the heart!
Li Jinglong saw that pipa woman’s smile that she tossed at them, and his face once again shuttered.
“... Since I do not know the spring wind, why does it part the curtains by my bed?” After singing this line, that beautiful pipa player lowered her head, and in her gaze was a hint of grief. Her voice was sweet, and the platform she sat on retreated backwards.
In this moment everyone in the hall loudly applauded, and just as they were about to give tips to the performers, that pipa woman suddenly smiled. Above their heads, a fire roared into existence, and Hongjun was so startled that he jumped and lifted his gaze up - it was just the servants lighting up that huge revolving scenic lantern hanging from the third floor.
Once the revolving scenic lantern was lit, the entirety of the main hall of Nightingale of the Spring Dawn was illuminated brightly, and countless singing birds appeared on the folding screens, creating a contrast with the dim scene right before. As the revolving scenic lantern slowly spun, it was as if countless birds flew by around it.
When Hongjun lowered his head again, he saw that that pipa player had already gone behind that turning platform, which was slowly revolving, revealing a thin, tall, middle-aged man, with a pipa held in his hand.
The accompanying dancers also took their leave, and the brightly-lit hall became this middle-aged man’s stage. That man seemed to have no wish to flaunt his musical skills, and he simply stroked one hand over the pipa strings, letting out countless flowing notes, before he sang, “The red flowers grow in the southern country, how many will sprout in the spring? I hope that you will pluck many -- as a symbol of our mutual yearning..”
In an instant Hongjun was enthralled. This person’s singing voice was completely different from A-Tai’s; where A-Tai’s voice was clear and limpid, this man’s voice was heavy and hoarse. But when he sang, it was similar to A-Tai in that there was a certain feeling of it piercing directly into a person’s heart, sending tingles all over his scalp.
In Nightingale of the Spring Dawn, all of the guests were in an uproar. Some people shouted out that musical master’s name, but they were quickly hushed by the other people around them.
Behind the dividing screen next to them, there suddenly came the sound of a plate being overturned.
Hongjun asked Li Jinglong, “He sings so well! Who is he?”
“Li Guinian,” Li Jinglong responded promptly as he smiled and watched Li Guinian.
That person was indeed the capital’s number one musician, Li Guinian, and when he saw Li Jinglong, he nodded and smiled. Hongjun exclaimed, “You guys know each other?”
“En.” Li Jinglong leaned on the folding screen as he threw one arm over Hongjun, making him lean a little closer, and he lazily said, “This fellow usually doesn’t come to Nightingale of the Spring Dawn to play, but today he came to give me some face.”
It was now that Hongjun finally understood: Li Guinian had been specially invited by Li Jinglong!
Li Guinian once again strummed the strings, but this time he started up with the line, “In spring the river rises as high as the sea, the bright moon over the sea seemed to be born of the tide… after following the ripples of light on the waves for thousands of li, where does the river in spring exist without the light of the moon?
Up above, the revolving scenic lantern dimmed once again as the group of women crowded over, lining up behind Li Guinian, each of them holding a pipa in their hand as they joined in. Li Guinian’s deep voice wove together with the harmony of the pipa chorus, as if the tide gently carried them, and a round of bright lanterns and the moon lit up the spring night for thousands of li.
Hongjun listened in complete rapture, until “the quarter moon quietly hides away in the sea fog, and the roads between “Jieshi and Xiaoxiang” are unlimited.” Then, Li Guinian paused to take a breath, before continuing, “Who knows how many will return by the light of the moon, the setting moon scatters yearning all over the trees by the river.” The pipa slowly faded away, and Hongjun’s heart seemed to follow the ebb and flow of the tide, slowly settling back into place. The great hall also slowly darkened.
“Tonight can I go find him to play?”
“Li Guinian doesn’t sell his body,” Li Jinglong said a little tipsily. He didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“I want to ask him to teach me the arts,” Hongjun excitedly said. “He sings too well!”
“Have you already forgotten me?” A-Tai asked mournfully from the other side of the folding screen.
Hongjun smiled. “I really wish there could be a day where you two performed on the same stage. I’m sure all of Chang’an would never stop talking about it.”
“I can’t compare to him,” A-Tai said.
Qiu Yongsi said, “Zhangshi, you recognize Li Guinian? I’ve never heard you mention it before.”
Li Jinglong said, “In previous years when he hadn’t yet become famous, I often used to spend money to support his performances, that’s all. Now that he’s a famous royal musician, I can’t afford him anymore, but all I had to do was to throw away my face to coax him out to play a few songs.”
The hall once again lit up, and this time a chorus of musical instruments started playing at once. The girls in the hall began to dance, fluttering their sleeves and twirling their clothing about. Now that Li Guinian had showed his face, the rest of tonight’s songs and dances waned ordinary in comparison. Hongjun kept recalling Liu Guinian’s “A Spring Night on the Flower-Filled, Moonlit River”, and it was as if he had lost his heart to it.
When the second geng came, the entertainment finally came to an end as Chang’an entered its customary curfew. The customers couldn’t win against the strength of that liquor, and one by one they hugged someone as they were carried up to the second and third floors to sleep. Over the course of that one night, Hongjun had managed to drink the wine as if it was water, and he was so drunk that he was slumped over the table. Li Jinglong shook him gently, asking, “Ay, should we go back?”
Qiu Yongsi came over to look, but Li Jinglong indicated that he was free to go as he pleased. Mo Rigen turned to look at the autumn moon. Li Jinglong wanted to carry Hongjun back, but he felt that tonight was cold, so he could only gather up a few folding screens around them in the hall and make do for the night. Hongjun, stinking of alcohol, lifted his eyes up to look at Li Jinglong, and he said, “Zhangshi…”
The alcohol was also affecting Li Jinglong, and he asked, “Do you want some water?”
“You… return my Heart Lamp,” Hongjun smiled and said, “I want to go home.”
Li Jinglong: “.....”
Hongjun then rolled over again and fell asleep.
Li Jinglong was helpless to do anything, so he tugged his robes around him a little more before he laid down at Hongjun’s side and fell asleep, the two of them lying shoulder to shoulder.
It was almost time for the sky to brighten, and Mo Rigen had gone off to who knows where when Li Jinglong patted Hongjun. The alcohol had worn off a little, and he had Hongjun come back with him.
When the two of them rode their horses over the “Bridge of Nine Turnings”, Li Jinglong purposefully slowed down a little, and seeing that Hongjun made no protest, asked, “Do you want to get down and walk a little?”
The autumn morning was thick with fog, and the alcohol had just worn off for Hongjun, so when he felt the cold wind he just wanted to vomit. He went to the bottom of the Bridge of Nine Turnings to do so. When he turned his head back, Li Jinglong handed over a bamboo tube with water to let him rinse his mouth, and after rinsing, Hongjun stumbled back up. When he made it under the maple tree, he suddenly thought of his home.
Yesterday night, the scene of the hundreds of birds flying about and the nightingales singing in unison reminded him of that smear of golden clouds around Yaojin Palace, and he grew unavoidably sad.
“Is it because I smashed your Heart Lamp, so now you can’t go home?” Li Jinglong’s forehead was faintly wrinkled as he looked over Hongjun.
Li Jinglong had him sit below the tree for a bit while he waited for the market’s food stalls to open so that they could have breakfast before they went back. Just as he had been previously, Hongjun was still dazed from the alcohol, and he said to Li Jinglong, “I’ll take you back to my house to play. In the back mountains there are… so many birds.”
Li Jinglong began to smile, and he asked, “When should we go?”
“En,” Hongjun responded. “We’ll leave early tomorrow…”
Hongjun sprawled all of himself on Li Jinglong’s body, and Li Jinglong could only let him; he didn’t want to push him away again. Under the Bridge of Nine Turnings the maple leaves danced, and as Hongjun pressed down on Li Jinglong, his face rubbed against his chest, and he felt extremely comfortable. When he was small he had also sprawled like this on the tree fork to take his afternoon nap, like a jaguar hanging off the tree, and when the wind blew, the leaves let out sha sha sounds as they rubbed against each other, filling the atmosphere with elegance and freedom.
“Ay.” Li Jinglong’s head began to hurt, and he said, “Don’t sleep anymore, let’s go back and sleep… Get up.”
Hongjun didn’t respond. Li Jinglong tilted his head over as well as his breathing roughened, and he too fell asleep under the tree.
A horse-drawn carriage passed over the Bridge of Nine Turnings, letting out quiet noises. In this fog, Lady Guoguo, in the carriage, lifted aside the curtain over the window, glancing down towards the bottom of the bridge.
Under the sky filled with maple leaves, Li Jinglong leaned up against the tree, with Hongjun sprawled over him like a dog.
“Mistress,” a man wearing a cloak said quietly.
“What background does he have?” Lady Guoguo asked in a deep voice.
The man shook his head and responded, “Xuanyin specially did some investigating, but was unable to find out his background.”
Lady Guoguo’s gaze returned from the bottom of the Bridge of Nine Turnings, falling instead on that man. The man pulled off the cloak, revealing an especially ugly and ferocious face, the muscles on his face were knotted and lean, and his brows and eyes glinted with maliciousness. The thin sliver of his mouth revealed four sharp teeth, and under his neck there was a brand. That burn scar contained the mark of Yazi, one of the “nine sons of the dragon”.
“Go notify Baxia and Suanni,” Lady Guoguo said darkly. “When the time comes, they will each act separately. Make sure to keep Li Jinglong alive so that we can peel off his skin and hang it outside the city gates of Chang’an.”
Yazi answered, “We can move out tonight. No matter how prepared the exorcists think they are, they are just five people, and they can’t win against us and Xuanyin.”
“We must play it safe,” Lady Guoguo said. “The destiny of the Great Tang is not yet fated to end, and until the last moment, we must not lightly engage in battle to prevent incurring the wrath of destiny.”
Yazi could only bow and agree, and he left the carriage as it left the Bridge of Nine Turnings behind, heading towards the royal palace.
This chapter is migrated and/or formatted by our fellow chicken enthusiast(s), moon.