Part of a Peony’s Tavern translation project at fruitydeer.com.
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Source: 芍藥客棧 by Yi Mei Tong Qian // Translated By: Xin (fruitydeer)
I love Liu Mao Shan’s art. I’ve featured his pieces a couple times now because I just really enjoy his craft. He was trained in European impressionism, and even though he later moved towards Chinese landscape painting and ink wash later on, the traces of western influence are still present in his work. He truly adds a unique spin to traditional eastern art, and I encourage who’s interested run a quick search on his pieces. It’s quite interesting seeing the contrast between how he portrays European and Asian landscapes.
She leaned over and stared closely, but she could not detect any demon or ghostly energy. There wasn’t even any immortal energy present. So he just fell into a deep sleep out of the blue? She scratched her head and looked around the room, but there was nothing strange. After mulling it over for a long time, she finally left. She went out the front gates, rubbed her chin, then went over to check out the living quarters of that Auntie Qin from the Dong Family, Zhang ge from Yun Alley, Yuan’er’s mother, as well as the third daughter-in-law of the Songs, and Old Jiao’s father. Without exception, all had fallen into a deep sleep with no differences between them.
Filled with misgivings as she returned to the tavern, what she was met with was the still-lit candles in the scholar’s room. Shao Zi changed direction, went in, and made eye contact with the scholar, who was reading a book in his hand. Her brows crinkled. There seemed to be something wrong with her etiquette. She backed out, then knocked on the door. “I’m coming in la.”
“…Come in.” The scholar watched as she did as before, passing straight through the door to enter…He chuckled ruefully. “After hours investigation at He Manor?”
Shao Zi sat on the stool next to the table, picked up the pot of tea and poured herself a cup, sighing, “That’s right, but I made no progress at all. I also went to take a look at the other households that were said to suffer from this sleeping sickness, but there were no traces of demon nor immortal energy. Strange, don’t you think?”
The scholar chuckled: “If you do a thorough investigation of what happened before those people fell asleep, you will eventually find an overlap in something. Once you start probing that point of similarity, you will reach an understanding.”
Shao Zi suddenly reached an understanding: “It’s still you who’s the smartest.”
The scholar sighed: “You clearly call me a dumb scholar every single day.”
Shao Zi said generously: “Tomorrow, I’ll start calling you Smart Scholar.”
The scholar burst into laughter: “Anything is fine. It’s deep into the night, hurry back and go sleep.”
“Mn, Dumb…” Shao Zi paused, then said jovially, “Innkeeper, you sleep earlier, too.”
The scholar looked at Shao Zi’s smiling expression. She was like an unblemished lotus after a bout of rain. And in the blink of an eye, she had already flitted away in nimble steps, her footstep kicking up a breeze wherein a fairy’s sleeves billowed to and fro,1 the sight leaving him dazed for a long moment. Only after she was gone did he take the tea that she just drank, delicately spilling it across the table. He placed a finger in that pool of water, then slowly pulled back.
The tea trickled up along his finger, but it stagnated before it even reached the edge of the table. Despite a splash of liquid had clearly remained there, it was not able to continue trickling up the lines of his finger. Though he was unwilling to give up on drawing it upwards, he was ultimately still unable to force the water continue to flow. Only after a long time did he put his hand away and wipe down the water on the table.
The issue at hand was obviously something that he could easily resolve, but he had no choice but to let her do it herself.
Though he was unwilling, only in this way could her spirit return.
Before dawn, Shao Zi had already gone off to inquire. At this time, there were already many people at the town center buying groceries. She asked a few neighbors of the people suffering from the sleeping sickness about all sorts of things–where these people had been, what they had eaten, and to what gods or Daoist priests had they paid respects.
When the scholar opened up the doors of the tavern, he saw that old candied art man sitting adjacent to the tavern once again. He did not peddle and only seemed to wait calmly for people to approach. The scholar looked him over in detail. Just like an ordinary person. No wonder Shao Zi could not tell. A moment later, he saw a Shao Zi in a blush pink dress bound over like glimmering pearl and jade. Her forehead and tiny traces of perspiration, her charming face rosy. Under this morning sun, she looked so dainty and beautiful. At this sight, he covered his nose and tilted his head upwards. Did things really need to be this overstimulating so early in the morning?
Shao Zi walked over with swift steps, nearly lunging into him. She grabbed his wrist with an expression of utmost seriousness: “Innkeeper, hurry and come inside with me. Something big has happened.”
She clutched his wrist in a frenzy, and though she used an uncanny amount of strength to clutch onto him, the scholar felt no pain at all. Shao Zi anxiously dragged him to the till, her bright eyes full of bewilderment. She said in a low voice: “It’s huge. I inquired all around and found out those people all have two points of similarity.”
The scholar was drunk on the touch of her soft hand, his countenance a little out of sorts: “Go ahead.”
“The first is that they all once spoke of wanting to die, but they either didn’t end up dying or they took no further action. Like Yuan’er’s mom. Her husband is a gambling addict and drunkard that often hits her. Last month, Yuan’er’s mother threw herself into the river to attempt suicide, but she ended up getting rescued. And there’s also Old Master He, who had been suffering from illness for a long time. After Madam He became ill and died, he thought that she became ill because of him and felt incredibly guilty. He feared that his only daughter would also get sick, so he sent her away to a mountain villa. Every day following was spent in a trance, worrying over his daughter as he lived on unhappily.”
The scholar nodded: “What about the second point?”
Shao Zi said bitterly: “The second is that before they fell asleep, each of them, with no exceptions whatsoever, walked by the street in front of our doors. What’s more is that they were essentially in very close distance to us. When I was inquiring all over, I realized that the expressions they used to look at me were all very strange and they all stood really far from me…They even said…our tavern has demons, and it’s because of demonic mischief that they caught this sleeping sickness.” She said irately, “How could there be demons at our tavern? I’m so mad!”
The scholar blinked: “Our tavern indeed has many demons.”
Shao Zi blinked as well, thinking after a moment that this was also true. But then, she quickly shook her head resolutely: “We would never hurt people.”
The scholar laughed: “Then what about the timeframe, when did this start happening?”
Shao Zi pulled her hand back and rubbed her chin: “Oh, seems like the first occurrence happened a month ago, and then it continued on in succession…” Speaking to this point, her brows knitted tighter. “I think it was after we came back from retrieving the phoenixes’ rainbow feather. It couldn’t be the phoenixes coming back to take revenge on Zhuang Yuan Town, could it?”
“The phoenixes are highly arrogant, they would not enter the Mortal Realm. Moreover, their rainbow feathers an be reproduced. So even if they came for revenge, they would not wait such a long time.”
Shao Zi quivered: “That’s true. If they decided to take action, this little town would probably long since been wiped out and leveled.”
Still with no semblance of understanding, she stood and peered at the bluestone covered street. Looks like she needed to narrow down her scope. Just as she became lost in thought, she saw a child running past happily with a candied art in his hands. A sweet fragrance passed through, refreshing the heart and mind. How great would it be to always be this happy, and then the tavern could also continue to…
She suddenly came to, her brows knitting once more as she rounded the till and went out. Shao Zi recalled the depressive rain. When the monk showed up, the entire town was covered in a haze, luring out the darkest parts of everyone’s hearts. Right now was the same. Smelling that sweetness would make one mull over the thought that, “If this was so…how wonderful would that be…” It was almost like seducing one into entering a mirage.
She rubbed her chin and continued outside.
Someone had just left the old candied art man’s stall when Shao Zi walked up. She leaned over to spin for a drawing: “Grandpa, I want a sugar painting.”
With that, she began the spin. The needle moved like a spinning whirlpool before slowly stopping on a carriage. The old man made to move just as before, calmly and skillfully picking up a little soup spoon and pouring the sugar into art. Shao Zi paid and took it back to the tavern. After giving it a long look-see, she found nothing odd about it. When she took a bite, it slowly melted in her mouth. Again, she found nothing odd about it. Seeing the scholar watching, she reached out: “Here.”
The scholar lowered his head and his teeth closed on the sugar, which entered his mouth with a crunchy sound: “It’s sweet.”
Sharing candy with Shao Zi was sweet enough to make the sugar go straight to his heart.
One bite after another, the two finished eating. Shao Zi was already getting sick of the sweetness, but had yet to feel that anything was off. Could she have guessed wrong? There was indeed nothing that looked strange about that old grandpa, so did she really guess incorrectly?
At night, Shao Zi lied down and went over what she investigated today. Before she was able to make sense of those several clues, she had already dazedly fallen asleep.
“Yuan’er’s mother puts just the right amount of salt in her dishes, how delicious.”
Shao Zi shook her head at these cheerful voices that came out of nowhere. Yuan’er’s mother? Isn’t that the auntie who fell asleep and can’t wake up? And that man is the gambling addict of a drunkard who hits people, Yuan’er’s father, no? She rubbed her eyes. Did she overdo it by thinking about the matter so much that she’s now started dreaming about them?
The little courtyard before her eyes was neat and tidy. The individuals sat at the table where there was large dishes of fish and meat sitting on top. Yuan’er’s mother smiled happily, and the family of three was jolly and harmonious. That man did not look the slightest bit like a drunkard. He picked vegetables for his wife and coaxed his son into eating. It was evident that he was a good husband.
Shao Zi sighed softly, if only this were not a dream. Just as she sighed, the dream took a turn and she arrived at a large manor. She nearly leapt to her feet at this sight. Wasn’t this that He Manor who owed a huge sum of silver? There were servants all around the courtyard, each person carrying an amiable smile. At the center of the courtyard were people admiring the moon and eating pastries. What was even more peculiar was that the late Madam He was there as well.
She stared with her brows furrowed, but after a slight blink of the eyes, it turned into sunny day with clear skies. And it was…Tong Fu Tavern.
She stilled, and when she saw the person inside, she fell into another daze. She subconsciously took a step closer: “Grandpa…”
That old innkeeper was in the middle of updating his account books. Hearing her voice, he looked up towards her and smiled genially: “Back already? Hurry and go wash your hands, it’s time to eat.”
Shao Zi’s eyes became watery, but just as she was about to go over, she stopped and shook her head: “Grandpa already went back to his hometown, you’re not…”
A voice undulated next to her ears: “Does it matter whether I am or I’m not? Is this not what you want the most?”
For a moment, Shao Zi fell into a stupor. The old innkeeper smiled: “What are you in a daze for? Everyone’s waiting for you inside. If you don’t eat up, how will you protect the tavern?”
Shao Zi peered inside. Lady Xin, Bottle Gourd ge, and the rest of them were all sitting over there, fighting over the food. The sounds of their laughter wafted through air and blew across her ears. She was gently nudged, and that tempting voice range by her ears once more: “Go on, hurry inside.”
In actuality, this was not a dream…but even if it were, that would be fine, too. What a wonderful thing to continue on being together with Grandpa, being with everyone at the tavern.
But once she took two steps forward, she felt as if someone was missing. She stared with concentration and though she could not remember who it was, there was indeed someone missing.
A very important, incredibly important person. Shao Zi’s steps stagnated. After looking for a long time, her heart finally dropped. The one missing…was the scholar…
Though he was a lazy person, that scholar, who would always be at her side at the most crucial moments, was not here.