The song came to an end, startling Zhang Shi Lan out of his thoughts. His eyes fluttered open and he found General Yu looking at him. Ah. Had he … had he just gotten lost in this song and failed to answer his question?
“Oh, I … I’m sorry. I … I wasn’t sure …” He stuttered a response, his cheeks flushing in embarrassment. Ah, just why did this always have to happen in front of General Yu? The one person he wanted to leave with a good impression had to be the one that thought worst of him.
Two seats further, Feng Gui Ying harrumphed. “So it turns out the famed Scholar Zhang is just that. All empty talk but no real knowledge. If this is the extent of the talent in our Chen country’s capital, then I’m really fearing for our future.”
General Yu ignored him as if he hadn’t heard anything. In fact, he really hadn’t heard. All his attention was focused on Zhang Shi Lan. He made sure to speak as calmly as he could so as to not scare the poor scholar further. “It’s alright. Did you remember?”
Zhang Shi Lan rushed to nod. “Yes, yes, it’s …” He gulped. “It’s … ‘Leaves on Fen Hua River’.”
“Oh.” Yu Huang Rong leaned closer and lowered his voice to allow them more privacy. “Has Scholar Zhang some personal connection to this song?”
Zhang Shi Lan blanked, his thoughts traveling to an autumn afternoon from about ten years ago. Back then, neither had Yu Huang Rong been this highly sought-after General yet nor had he been someone that could be called a scholar. In fact, he had been nothing but a youth that liked to study. He had been bewitched by the depth of poetry, the lure of music, the pleasing sight of paintings and the seeming naturalness of the gardens that was still guided by strict laws. He would often seek these things in the capital, hoping to gain some insight that would let him understand what he still couldn’t comprehend.
That particular day had been colder than the ones before, the wind blowing strongly from the north, bring the first faint notion of the snow that would soon fall. It rustled in the treetops and made him hunch up his shoulders but he still shivered. Just before he had been visiting one of the countless teahouses and he felt as if he faintly sensed the warmth that lingered on his body but in the next moment, a gust of wind came and took it away. He shuddered again and pulled the overcoat closer around his shoulders, pressing his hands against his body to warm them.
Still, he wasn’t resigned to leave the streets just yet. He continued to move forward, listening to the songs that could be heard from inside the teahouses, observing the people around him and looking for the next place that might be able to sate his curiosity. Finally, he found himself at the bank of the Fen Hua river.
He stopped moving. The wind was blowing more fiercely here where there were fewer buildings to obstruct it but Zhang Shi Lan didn’t mind. No, he was content at this moment. This river was like the lifeline of the capital. A place where businesses were conducted and goods transported. Sometimes, it was even just used as a place for enjoyment. But right now, at this spot, nothing much was happening on the river. The water was only rippling slightly in the wind, slowly moving forward just like the people on the banks moved toward their goals.
Ah, how poetic! This water, it wasn’t much different from the people of the capital, of Chen country, maybe even the people of other countries. It would quietly follow the path Heaven had chosen for it just like the people would follow the path that was destined for them. It could lead them to all kinds of different places, letting them see the world and experience all kinds of different things.
Just as the water would rush forward and carry along the leaves falling from the treetops in autumn or the blossoms in spring, they would also make acquaintances over the years that might accompany them for a while before they had to part ways. Would they see each other again? Would they meet somebody similar a few years down the road?
Pondering all these questions, Zhang Shi Lan strolled along the bank of the Fen Hua river. Unknowingly, in one of the teahouses, a lone erhu had started to play. ‘Leaves on Fen Hua river’.
He couldn’t help but think how apt it was, how very fitting for his current mood and his thoughts as if this too was one of those chance encounters where you suddenly found yourself in the face of a kindred spirit who understood the questions in your heart and wanted to explore these secrets together.
Ah, how wonderful would it be to truly meet such a person, to have somebody at his side he could confide his thoughts to. Somebody who would listen to his musings and tell him about his own revelations, somebody he could grow with and —
“Ah!” Another gust of wind made him flinch and he shied away from the water. Maybe it was still better to go search for that teahouse where somebody was playing the erhu. Who knew? Maybe there was somebody among the guests that would turn out to be interesting company?
He hunched his shoulders further and squinted his eyes against the cold wind, trying to squeeze back into the crowd that was hurrying along the street. Just when he turned, a man rushed past him, his shoulder crashing into him.
Zhang Shi Lan gave a yelp and staggered back, his feet slipping on the floor. His eyes widened and he flailed his arms, trying to grab onto something, anything, but his hands came up empty. He continued to fall, his feet leaving the ground. He pressed his eyes shut, bracing himself against the impact when he would crash into the water. He also took a deep breath so he wouldn’t drown right away. Maybe he’d be able to get out. Maybe somebody could pull him back onto the riverbank again.
The people around him yelled, some of them rushing toward him to see what was happening. But they would come too late. He knew he could only hope to be pulled out again.
Someone grabbed his arm and pulled, whirling his body in the other direction. The hem of his robe touched the water, spraying icy drops in every direction when he was lifted up. Zhang Shi Lan collided with a hard chest, the breath he had been holding pressed out of his lungs. He clung to the person, his eyes still shut in fear, his chest heaving up and down.
They stood there for a few breaths and then, a big, warm hand reached up. His thumb warmed his cheek, his palm covered his neck, his fingers slid into his hair, giving him a sense of security back, infusing him with warmth. Zhang Shi Lan’s eyes fluttered open and he looked up at this person who had saved him and whose warmth was now penetrating his skin.
The person in front of him was a young man, maybe six or seven years older than him. Zhang Shi Lan didn’t manage to take a closer look at him though. The gaze from those deep-set eyes caught his, making him unable to look away. The dark brows describing a steep arch above them raised even further, a sliver of amusement glinting in his eyes.
“Are you alright?” He pulled Zhang Shi Lan back onto his feet but his arm still remained draped around his waist as if he had no intention to let him out of his embrace.
Zhang Shi Lan didn’t even think of struggling out of this grasp and he couldn’t come up with a response either. He just looked at those eyes, his heart jumping like a horse about to break free of its reins.
The man leaned closer, his breath brushing Zhang Shi Lan’s cheeks. His grip around his waist tightened and that big, warm hand traveled further to the back of his head, tilting it up so he could look into his eyes to see whether he was hurt. “Are you alright?” He accentuated every word as if he was talking to an idiot.
“Ah … yes.” Zhang Shi Lan blushed and folded his hands in front of his chest, trying to take a step back to bow to his savior. Those arms were holding him too tightly though. There was no way to escape. Zhang Shi Lan lowered his eyes to escape this man’s magnetic gaze but instead, he was faced with a pair of downturned lips that slowly curved up into a teasing smile.
His cheeks flushed even deeper. He wanted nothing more than to run off and hide. How could he embarrass himself in front of his savior like this? “I …”
The man grabbed his chin and lifted his face back up. “Are you sure? Your face is red. Did you get soaked through? You should go inside then. Where do you live? Should I take you back?”
Zhang Shi Lan stared at those deep-set eyes that showed a hint of worry and warmth filled his heart. He melted into that man’s embrace and shyly nodded his head. He didn’t know who this man was and he knew he shouldn’t cling to him but he didn’t want to leave his side just yet. Even if it was just a few more moments, he wanted to spend them with him.
The man nodded and gently led him over to a horse, helping him up onto its back before he took the reins and slowly led it through the streets. Zhang Shi Lan observed him, his gaze brushing over that straight back clad in armor, taking in that steady pace. The fright from almost falling into the Fen Hua river had already worn off and even his heart wasn’t racing anymore. Right now, he only felt a deep peace.
When they reached his house and that man helped him down from the horse again, holding onto him for a moment longer, he even managed to give a small smile. “Thank you.”
“Don’t mention it. It’s what I should do.” That man had smiled and brought him to the door, before he finally rode off on his horse, leaving Zhang Shi Lan standing beside the entrance alone, gazing longingly at his back.
It had taken him two years to find out who this man was that had saved him from falling to the tune of ‘Leaves on Fen Hua River’. And now, another five years later, they were sitting side by side while the same song played.
Could he take this as a sign that there was still some fate between them?