The pear blossoms are prettier even than snow. Its fragrance immediately seeps into one’s clothes. The spring winds continue to make its petals sway, in hope that the beautiful flowers might land on the steps to the palace.
These classic poems were always so beautiful. Song Caitang couldn’t remember who the poet who wrote this poem was1, but standing in front of the valley of pear trees in full bloom with the warm breeze in her face, the white pear flowers swaying, the floral fragrance hitting her nostrils and making her hair and clothes smell just as fragrant – it felt so wonderful.
The flowers were very pretty. The branches resembled those of most trees, so they weren’t noteworthy. The color combination of the flowers was the interesting part.
There were very few leaves. The few were very small and tender, and they were an adorable light green. The flower petals were round and as white as snow, but the middle was green with just a little yellow. The sepal was green too, so it seemed filled with fresh air and they were mesmerizing.
One flower had two colors – a white as white as snow, and a green that represented new life. It smelled lovely when the breeze blew through the trees too. Of course, everyone loved these pear blossoms.
“What do you think? They’re pretty, aren’t they?”
Old Madam Li had a satisfied smile when she saw Song Caitang smiling faintly at the flowers as she allowed her hair and skirt to flap gently in the wind. “I just knew a young lady like you would definitely like this.”
Song Caitang looked at Old Madam Li with a sparkle in her eyes. “I like this very much! Thank you for bringing me here.”
“Come along now, don’t just stand there. Let’s sit down to enjoy the scenery while eating.”
Old Madam Li said they were here to just admire the scenery, but she had prepared everything. She had a mat, cushions, a full tea set, finger food, boxes and boxes of food, as well as a small group of kitchen helpers at the back…
People really enjoyed their picnics even in this era. They could have anything they wanted.
Song Caitang went over to enjoy the flowers and eat tasty snacks with Old Madam Li. They had a lovely time together.
After eating, they even slept for a while under the sun.
The sun was bright, the weather was warm and so was the wind. They just had to put a slightly thicker mat on the ground and they could sleep. Song Caitang only slept for a while, but Old Madam Li slept very well. It was evening by the time she woke up.
“It’s been a long time since I slept so well.”
Auntie Liu helped Old Madam Li straighten out her clothes and recomb her hair as Old Madam Li waved at Song Caitang with a smile, “Come, let’s go up the mountain. I’ve got a small house at the peak and we’ll stay there tonight. If the skies are clear and the moon is bright enough, we can look down at the sea of flowers from there. It’ll be even prettier than what you’ve seen this morning!”
“Sure!” said Song Caitang, “I love moonlight and flowers the most!”
She was covered in the fragrance of flowers, her smile reflecting the orange sun, and her skirt swayed gently in the breeze. All of her seemed to embody the freshness and energy of springtime.
Old Madam Li smiled even more widely and patted Auntie Liu’s hand, “She’s such a good girl.”
Then, everything changed.
A group of men in black with their faces covered suddenly leaped out from all directions at top speed. None of them spoke as they held up swords and dashed toward the women in the middle without hesitation.
Before they could even turn around, some of the guards in the outermost area had already been killed. Blood stained the pear blossoms. Their screams were terrifying and made everyone’s hair stand on end.
Just a few more seconds later, more guards had died and the men in black were closing in!
Judging from their speed and the way they were attacking the guards with such accuracy, it was obvious that this group had been lying in wait and observing them for a long time. They had certainly made sufficient plans before launching their attacks!
“Old Madam Li!”
Song Caitang picked up her skirt and ran toward Old Madam Li as she started thinking about what to do.
If the other party was determined to carry out their mission today and had done a lot of observation and research work, then they would probably already know their schedule for the day, the route they were taking, whether they had communication with the outside world or not, and if they had, how often they communicated. They would have known the answers to all these questions and made their plans accordingly.
That was bad news.
She and Old Madam Li were women who didn’t know martial arts and were not accompanied by anyone who did. What if something untoward happened to them?
Who were these people? Who was their target?
Her? Or Old Madam Li?
She got an answer to the last question pretty quickly.
The men in black seemed to be fighting anyone they ran into and did not look very organized, but they had actually formed a circle that was slowly but surely closing in around Old Madam Li!
They ignored the beautiful horse carriage and all the suitcases covered in gold and jewels. They held up their sharp swords and came for the old lady like they were the god of death.
These people weren’t here to get rich. They wanted Old Madam Li’s life!
Despite the dangerous situation she was in, Old Madam Li remained unafraid.
Besides an initial look of surprise when the men first appeared and a deep frown, her expression afterward was completely calm. Her eyes were slightly narrowed and, unlike most elderly people, they weren’t cloudy at all. However, her slightly clumsy steps as she held onto Auntie Liu’s arm still revealed that she was a fairly weak old lady after all. Facing a crisis like this was very hard on her.
Old Madam Li was no ordinary person, so she had a lot of guards both in the open and in hiding. They had been caught off guard by the surprise attack and the men in black had managed to kill a number of them. But once they realized what was happening, they quickly got into position and were able to make sure the enemies remained several feet away. They were not exactly winning, but at least the attackers wouldn’t get to Old Madam Li for a while.
Song Caitang wasn’t the target, so she was able to get to Old Madam Li quite easily.
“Old Madam Li! Are you alright?”
Old Madam Li gripped Song Caitang’s hand tightly. “I’m so sorry for implicating you, my dear.”
Song Caitang shook her head and looked worriedly at Old Madam Li.
Qingqiao stood next to Song Caitang with her arms stretched out. She gritted her teeth to force herself to stay calm, but her body was still trembling.
Old Madam Li, on the contrary, was still calm. “The mountains and forest are too dense, so we can be attacked like this very easily. We must not stay here anymore. The peak of the mountain is an easy target and it’s also very easy for others to surround us, so we’re going down the mountain now. Caitang, follow closely behind me, understand?”
Before Song Caitang could respond, Old Madam Li had already motioned to the guards around her.
If she spoke, the other party would overhear their plans. It was better to use her hands to mobilize the guards. That way, they might even confuse the other party, since they didn’t know what these actions meant.
In no time, Song Caitang saw many more guards leap out from nowhere. Some were men and some were women, but they all quickly grabbed a dark green cloak, wrapped it around themselves and pulled the hood over their heads.
Auntie Liu grabbed one too. She put it on Old Madam Li and covered the old lady’s head with the hood.
Without the need for further instruction, the entire group of cloaked people formed one large group and started moving outward along with Old Madam Li.
Song Caitang understood that they were going to just move as an identically dressed herd so that the enemy would have trouble knowing which one of them was actually Old Madam Li.
She did not say another word and quickly bowed her head as she followed the group out.
The group was large, so they were like a huge fire as they quickly broke through the circle of men in black and hurried into the forest.
There were a lot of men in black, so they were probably going to catch up with them quickly. Old Madam Li immediately gave a secret signal for the group to split up.
As a result, there were groups of people, each with someone dressed in a dark green cloak and hood, heading in every possible direction. Any one of them could be Old Madam Li!
The real Old Madam Li was moving at the fastest speed. Auntie Liu was carrying her and focused on just running as quickly as she could. They soon ran out of sight…
This method was originally a good one.
Song Caitang dragged Qingqiao along and they made it with Old Madam Li all the way down to the middle of the mountain and there were no men in black in sight.
But the mountain roads were winding and difficult to walk on and there was a limit to how quickly they could move since they had an old person with them. Using substitutes to mislead the enemy was an overt plan, not a covert one. If the other party had sufficient numbers, they would eventually catch up with the right group.
The anxiety in Song Caitang’s heart did not fade with time at all.
Her heart sank when she heard the rustling of trees from afar.
They had caught up.
The group stopped and the guards gripped their weapons tightly as they protected the group in the middle with resolute expressions on their faces.
Song Caitang took two steps forward and pulled off Old Madam Li’s cloak easily, then wrapped it around herself and covered her head with the hood. “Old Madam Li, you have to be careful on your way down!”
Old Madam Li immediately realized what she was doing and said sternly, “What does a young girl like you know? Return the cloak to me now!”
“You’ve treated me very genuinely and you’ve been very protective of me as well. I’ve not done anything to deserve this and even if I did, I did not do it for anything in return. But you’ve been sincere toward me and I really cannot be ungrateful for that,” Song Caitang smiled beautifully at her. “Don’t worry, my luck has always been pretty good. These people are targeting you and not me, so even if they realize it’s me, they might spare me and I’d come back to you alive.”
“No!” Old Madam Li furrowed her brows. “I’m not going to live for much longer, while you are still young and…”
Song Caitang ignored everything she said and dragged Qingqiao along as she started moving away from the group. “Take care, Old Madam Li! Auntie Liu, quickly bring her down the mountain! Don’t waste this good opportunity! There aren’t a lot of guards, so don’t bother giving me any. It’s easier for me to run on my own!”
Most of the time, Song Caitang enjoyed slow walks. But this time, she ran especially quickly.
She was terrible at directions, but her observation skills were exceptional. The group had stopped for a short time just now, but she had already discovered a position that would be great for hiding herself. Even if Old Madam Li sent some guards to go with her, they wouldn’t find her as long as she didn’t make any noise.
Because she had made this decision so quickly and with such stubbornness, there was nothing Old Madam Li could do. She had no choice but to continue making her way down the mountain so that she wouldn’t waste Song Caitang’s efforts…
Shortly after Old Madam Li left, Song Caitang noticed that the rustling noises were getting closer.
Since everything was going the way she wanted, she hopped out from her hiding spot and purposely made a little noise as she continued running with Qingqiao in order to attract the enemy’s attention.
Once she realized they were following her, she sped up.
The route she chose was not based on her sense of direction, or because it was the safest route, or because it was a route that could lead her somewhere. She just picked whichever path had the least challenging terrain so that she could run quickly while creating some obstruction along the way!
Qingqiao was terrified. “Young Mistress, do we… really have to do this?”
Song Caitang was almost breathless, but she still managed to laugh. “Do you expect me to let an old granny die for my sake?”
Old Madam Li had been so kind to her, and the old lady had genuinely doted on her. Even just this excursion to see the pear blossoms was a good example. Old Madam Li was already so old, yet she was willing to take the trouble and effort to bring her here. She hadn’t done it for herself. She had done it for Song Caitang.
There were some things you could feel even if they remained unsaid.
Old Madam Li was basically treating her like a granddaughter.
“Even without everything she’s done for me,” sighed Song Caitang, “if some random old person ran into something like that, I’ve got to help in any way I can.”
Song Caitang encouraged Qingqiao, “Come on, Qingqiao! Put in a little more effort so that we can get out of this alive!”
They were in a dangerous situation, but who didn’t run into a little danger in their lives from time to time? Nobody lived a truly smooth sailing life. If she had to die, she wanted to make dying worth it.
Madam Ge’s morals were questionable, but there was one thing she was right about.
Everyone’s lives revolved around making decisions.
How your life turned out depended on a series of decisions made at every fork in the road. Song Caitang chose to take just one step at a time and run her race honestly so that her conscience was always clear.
Her observation skills were good and so was her memory. But she did not think about whether she was going up or down the mountain and just kept running in whichever direction looked easiest. Her legs weren’t trained in running, but she managed to run fast enough for the men chasing her to stop trying to hide their presence and start cursing out loud.
The sun slowly set and the golden sunshine darkened. Even the glow on the horizon was fading.
Song Caitang didn’t have much energy left.
Qingqiao was breathless and perspiring profusely too.
Song Caitang found a gentle slope and stopped to ask Qingqiao, “Do you know the way down?”
Unlike her clueless employer, Qingqiao immediately stuck a small hand out in a particular direction, “Go straight in this direction and we’d get to the bottom of the mountain in less than an hour. As long as we keep close to the main road that leads in and out of the city, there’ll definitely be people around us. Basically, once we reach the foot of the mountain, we don’t have to be scared anymore! Young Mistress, are you saying… we don’t have to run in circles anymore? We can go down now?”
She looked at Song Caitang with a hopeful sparkle in her eyes.
Song Caitang patted her head, “Are you scared?”
“I was scared earlier, but I’m not scared anymore!”
“You’re not scared even if you’re being chased? Even if the sun has already set?”
“What are you talking about? We’re being chased right now, aren’t we? The sun will take a while more to set and this path isn’t too difficult, so there’s nothing to be scared of.”
Song Caitang smiled suspiciously brightly at Qingqiao. “That’s great.”
Qingqiao smelled a rat.
Her Young Mistress liked to smile. She smiled when she was happy and she also smiled when she was plotting against others. But this smile seemed a little off.
But before she could even say anything, Song Caitang struck the back of her neck with her palm. Her expression was still perplexed as her eyes closed and she lost consciousness.
Song Caitang caught Qingqiao’s limp body and carefully hid her in the shadow of the large rock in front of her. She even threw some grass over her to hide her better.
She was so grateful for her training in her previous life. She didn’t have any real martial arts training, but she was well-trained in this particular technique. It worked on everyone, including strong men. She was even able to control how long one fainted for depending on the amount of strength she exerted.
Not that much time had passed, so she didn’t think Old Madam Li was out of the woods yet. Her job as a red herring had to continue.
She was very exhausted and even Qingqiao couldn’t run anymore. She didn’t want Old Madam Li to die because of her, and in the same way, she didn’t want Qingqiao to die because of her either.
Qingqiao knew the way down and she wasn’t too afraid to tackle that, which was good news. At least one of them was going to survive.
Song Caitang stood there for a while to rest. When she could hear the men closing in, she tightened the cloak around her and ran in a different direction.
Qingqiao, you’ve got to make it out of here safely!
She started running again.
Night had fallen and the sound of nocturnal animals began to fill the air. Some were soft, some were sudden, some were frightening. Rotting smells soon hit Song Caitang as she realized that she wasn’t only stepping on branches and leaves, but also on some harder objects that were sometimes a little slimy and a little furry.
Those were the bodies of dead animals.
Her footsteps got heavier and heavier. Her heart was pounding so quickly, it felt like it was about to leap out of her throat. Her throat burned as though it was on fire.
She knew she couldn’t last for long.
Besides, it was clear that she wasn’t Old Madam Li by now. How could an old person possibly keep running at this speed for so long?
Everything she had done earlier had only served to anger the people running after her. And when they realized that Song Caitang was a young woman, their eyes lit up.
Their mission was to get that old woman, but they were more than happy to catch this girl!
“Keep running! Go on! Why did you stop? You little bitch, when I catch you, I’m going to teach you a good lesson! I’ll show you what I’m made of!”
“Heh heh! Boss, you can take her first, and I’ll go second! This little bitch’s got a lot of energy! I like that!”
“Look at how she runs with her legs closed so tightly! I’d bet she’s still a virgin! We’re in luck, my brothers!”
All sorts of nasty, lewd comments were carried by the wind to Song Caitang’s ears. Those comments, along with the rotting, muddy smell in the air, could really make one feel very uncomfortable.
Song Caitang ignored what they said and just pressed a hand against a tree as she closed her eyes and breathed heavily.
The men in black were afraid that she might start running again, so the leader among them threw the sword in his hand towards Song Caitang’s legs.
If he could injure her, she wouldn’t be able to run anymore!
Song Caitang could hear the sound of the sword coming and she could sense danger. She knew she ought to move to one side, but she simply didn’t have the strength to.
It seemed like she wasn’t going to escape her fate this time.
It’s Qiu Wei, poet from the Tang Dynasty. ↩️
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