Pan Ling moved his chopsticks in a hurry and rushed back to his room after a hasty goodbye. His family exchanged confused glances.
“What’s with Ah Ling?” His mother raised her brows.
His father shrugged his shoulders and continued eating. “Who knows? Maybe he wants to go and study.”
“Today as well? This has been going on for a long time. He was never that concerned with his studies before.”
Mister Pan’s chopsticks slowed and he glanced in the direction where his son had left. Well, he also wasn’t sure what this was about but it wasn’t a bad thing, was it? Anyway, if his son was able to learn some more and attain a high place in the imperial examinations, that would be good for the whole family. Especially with his sister reaching marriageable age in two years, that would be welcome. “Don’t worry too much about it. Maybe he is finally growing up. It would be a relief.”
Madam Pan wasn’t happy with having to let go of this matter. It had almost been a year since her son started to behave like this. How could she not want to know what was going on? But there was nothing she could do so she nodded her head and continued to eat with the rest of the family.
Meanwhile, Pan Ling changed his clothes, grabbed a lantern from one of the servants, and rushed out of the house. He ran toward the river, not bothering to pay attention to any of the people that were still out and about. He didn’t even hear when somebody called out to him and just rushed past them. His heartbeat sounded like a drum in his ear and his breath came in short puffs.
He only slowed down when he could see the river. A bridge was leading over it, a willow tree standing next to it, the branches hanging down onto the surface of the water. A few leaves had fallen and were floating down the river.
Pan Ling stopped in his tracks and brushed over of his robe, making sure that there weren’t any creases in the sleeves before he raised the lantern higher and walked over with a measured pace.
He glanced around but the person he was looking for wasn’t there yet. He sighed and then leaned against the railing of the bridge, looking out over the water. With the fading daylight, it seemed dark at first glance but looking closer, a million stars seemed to glow on the surface. The lantern that he had put onto the railing next to him was reflected as a bright spot and the lights from the houses in the streets next to the river. It was a beautiful sight to behold and one that calmed his heart.
Pan Ling took a deep breath and then patted his sleeve. He would certainly be here soon. He just had to wait a bit longer.
He raised his gaze to the willow tree on the bank and watched the wind rustle in the leaves. Below him, the water rippled, filling the night with its soft, reassuring sound. The voices that had still sounded from the streets close to his house before slowly faded and he was finally left with only the faint sound of the water.
He took a few steps on the bridge, the wooden planks creaking below his feet while he looked out for the person he was waiting for. Above him, the last light of the day faded and only the dimmed glow of the lanterns brightened the spot where he was waiting on the bridge.
“Pan Ling.” A soft voice finally sounded behind him, making him tense up to him before he turned around.
“Luan Shui.” Pan Ling smiled unwittingly at the person’s sight and his eyes lit up. “You’ve come here again.”
Luan Shui stepped closer and leaned next to him against the railing. “I always return here without fail.”
Pan Ling had to force down the corners of his lips that wanted to curl up even further. Return here without fail … Did he mean that he also looked forward to seeing him every day? Then maybe, his efforts in the last ten months hadn’t been wasted. “I … I also … I also try to come here every day.”
Luan Shui nodded while he looked out at the gurgling stream below them. “I know. In these months, hardly a day has gone by without you accompanying me here. I am thankful for that. It can get quite lonely here.”
Pan Ling hesitated and then took a thin chest out of his sleeve. He put it onto the railing next to Luan Shui’s hands and gave a nervous smile. “I’ve noticed that you always wore your hair open and you mentioned that your family wasn’t doing well. I thought that … maybe this would suit you.”
Luan Shui looked at him, his gaze flickering. “You have thought so much about it.”
Pan Ling’s cheeks flushed. “That …” He cleared his throat and finally nodded. “Mn. I … I wanted you to be happy.”
“I’m very happy.” He motioned at the chest. “Why don’t you open it for me to see?”
Pan Ling didn’t think further about it and rushed to do as Luan Shui had asked. This person, even though he had only seen him for the first time one night ten months ago, he would do anything he asked.
When he uncovered the lid, a silver hairpin could be seen. It was designed with one side forming a wavy line that became broader toward the end. A few blue gems were inlaid, forming a beautiful pattern. The stones glinted in the light of the lantern and a faint smile graced Luan Shui’s lips.
“It is very beautiful. Thank you.”
Pan Ling looked at the hairpin happily. “I’m glad you like it. Should I …?” He motioned to Luan Shui’s hair but the other youth shook his head.
“No. Even though it’s beautiful, I’m afraid I can’t accept it.” He lightly shook his head.
Pan Ling’s expression fell. “Luan Shui, I …” He looked down and his grip around the hairpin tightened. “I just want to give this to you. There are no strings attached. I’m sure that you have noticed my feelings for you. But I do not expect you to return them. If you don’t, then … then that will be alright. If you do …” He put the hairpin back, closed the chest’s lid and pushed it to Luan Shui. “Then I would be the happiest man in the capital. Luan Shui, you do not have to answer immediately but since the day we met, I have been unable to stop thinking about you. Coming here every evening, it was also because I was unable not to see you. I can’t imagine spending my days without you in the future. Although I do not want you to feel forced, I can’t help but ask you: If I went and proposed to your family, would you be willing to marry me?”
Luan Shui looked at the chest in front of him and then up at Pan Ling. There was a smile on his lips but it was a sad one as if answering this question pained him. “How am I supposed to answer this?”
Pan Ling smiled. “Just answer honestly. Do not feel forced. You have already told me about your familial circumstances so I know your position. That is not what I am asking about. I just want to know about your feelings. If you feel that you can love me, then I will happily comply with whatever demands you might have. Even if you want me to wait another ten months, I will gladly do so for you. If you feel that you can never requite my feelings, try as you might, then you can also tell me about that. I will not bother you about it ever again. That is my promise to you.” He looked at him earnestly, hoping that Luan Shui would be able to see that he was serious with this.
Luan Shui sighed and looked up at the stars, his expression turning wistful. “If you had asked whether I requited your feelings, then the answer would be that I do.”
Pan Ling’s expression lit up and he wanted to step closer but Luan Shui stepped back from him.
“Although I do, there is no way for me to marry you. Young Master Pan, I do hope you will find somebody else you can love in the future and propose to them with the same earnestness you showed me today. I am sure … they will be flattered just as much as I am and waste no time in promising themselves to you.”
“But you can’t?” Pan Ling’s brows drew together. He had said he would accept whatever Luan Shui said but right now, he felt that he might not be able to do so after all. What did he mean he loved him but couldn’t marry him? “Why not? Is there something speaking against is? Has your family promised you to somebody else? Tell me about whatever troubles you have. If you just love me, then we will find a way to make it work. I will not give up.”
Luan Shui looked at him quietly and shook his head. “There are some things where no matter how much work you put in, the result is already a foregone conclusion. Young Master Pan, do not think about me anymore. If it was another life, I would gladly say yes to everything you asked. But now … maybe it is better if we didn’t see each other again.” He turned away, his back looking frail in front of Pan Ling.
“Why? Is there no way to change your mind? Maybe … Maybe if I returned a week from now, you would have changed your mind?”
Luan Shui shook his head and stepped further away, out of Pan Ling’s reach. “There is no week to be had. Tomorrow … Tomorrow, my time here will already come to an end. I can do nothing but leave. If I lingered … it would still lead nowhere and just bring the two of us more pain.”
“I don’t understand.” Pan Ling shook his head and wanted to follow him but Luan Shui glanced over his shoulder and his gaze froze him in place.
“It is better if you don’t. Please, do not ask. Just … return home and try to forget about me. There is no happiness to be had from this.”
Pan Ling’s expression turned just as pained but he finally nodded. “Alright. I will return home for today. But I will come back here! Maybe you’ll have changed your mind until then.” He picked up the lantern, turned around and rushed away, not waiting for Luan Shui’s response. He also left the chest with the hairpin, hoping that despite his words, Luan Shui would take it with him.
He ran back home just as fast as he had run to the river. But now, nobody was on the streets anymore. His steps echoed as hollow as his heart felt. Why? How could he say he loved him but then refuse to marry him or even see him again? Why would he do so? What kind of trouble did he have to do this to both of them?
When he reached the estate of his family, Pan Ling could hardly calm down. He stood in front of the door for a while, taking a few deep breaths before he managed to school his expression. His family didn’t know about Luan Shui because he had always feared they would not allow them to be together. So now, he could hardly tell them.
He returned to his room and handed the lantern to one of the servants.
“You’re back, Young Master!” His personal servant walked over to help him out of the coat he had worn. Seeing Pan Ling’s expression, he stopped. “Is something the matter?”
Pan Ling shook his head and went further inside, sitting down at the table and pouring himself a cup of tea. He didn’t know what to do. Even if he returned to the bridge tomorrow and even if Luan Shui would wait for him like always, what would it change?
He finally turned back to his servant and put down the cup. “Xiao Min, say, isn’t your family from the southern district?”
“Ah? Yes, it is. Why?”
“Do you know a Luan family? One with a son named Luan Shui?”
His servant flinched. “Pei, pei, pei! Why would you say such unlucky things, Young Master?!” He rubbed his arms and shook his head, looking as if he’d run to get a Daoist priest to cleanse the house.
Pan Ling stared at him, his mouth agape. “What did I say?” Hadn’t he just asked about Luan Shui’s family?
His servant glanced around nervously but finally couldn’t help but step closer and explain in a hushed voice. “You don’t know, but that Luan family is really unlucky. Their son, that Luan Shui, was a very beautiful youth that could draw any man’s eyes. He also had a good character but he fell in love with a man far above his station. At first, they were still happy and his family thought that it was a good thing for him and would help him secure a good life. But then that man lost interest and instead married a young woman.”
“And Luan Shui was heartbroken?” Pan Ling’s expression turned pained. So because of that, he didn’t trust him either and felt that he would break his heart just the same?
His servant sighed. “Very much so! He couldn’t take it so he went to hang himself at the willow tree next to the river. His family noticed when he left so they rushed after him. They yelled for him to stop but to no avail.” He sighed again. “Who knew … the rope he used ripped before he could die. They already thought they might not lose their son, after all, but he truly was too unlucky. He fell into the river. Back then, it had rained for three days and three nights without lessening the slightest bit. The stream was harsher than usual and he was pulled underwater and didn’t come up again. He finally drowned in the river and they only managed to pull his body out a week later.”
The servant sighed for the third time and shook his head. “That Luan Shui … Words can’t describe what he must have gone through. And all just because he fell in love with the wrong man. Ah, one can only hope he’ll have more luck in his next life.”
“… Yeah.” Pan Ling sat at the table in a daze, staring at the steaming cup of tea without knowing what to think.
So to speak … he had spent the last ten months being in love with a ghost? No wonder … No wonder Luan Shui had said to forget about him because there was no way for them to ever be together. Tomorrow … tomorrow might actually be the anniversary of his death. It was likely the day he would have to leave this world of the living so his soul would still have a chance to reincarnate. If he didn’t, it might dissolve forever or turn into a vengeful spirit. That … truly wasn’t hat should happen.
Pan Ling closed his eyes and waved the servant away, finally going to bed in a complicated mood. When he got up the next morning, he dressed and then went back to the bridge. The chest with the hairpin was still standing there. Naturally, nothing could be seen of Luan Shui.
Pan Ling sighed. “Of course, a ghost wouldn’t come out during the day. No wonder he only ever appeared after the sun went down.” He took the thin chest and put it back into his clothes, looking out at the river below him.
With the sounds of the city that were awakening all around him, the gurgling of the stream could hardly be heard. Only at night would it be as obvious as it had been yesterday. So had Luan Shui been forced to hear this sound that he had likely heard when he died for this whole year? The longer he thought about it, the more he felt that Luan Shui had indeed been too unlucky.
He sighed and returned home but he did not know what to do. He had to let go but he did not know how. All he could think about was that he would never be able to see him again if he did not go to see him today.
In the end, he could not hold back. He put the chest with the hairpin down next to his bed and then returned to the bridge, waiting there the whole day until the sun went down and night fell. He had forgotten to bring a lantern as it had still been bright when he went out again. He didn’t care though. He just waited, his hands clutching the railing while he looked down at the water.
“You still came.” That familiar voice sounded behind him, nothing more but a whisper.
Pan Ling turned around, a sad smile on his lips. “I came to say goodbye. Maybe … maybe in our next life, we’ll meet early enough.”
Luan Shui nodded. He stepped closer and reached out, raising his hands as if to touch Pan Ling’s cheeks. In the end, there was no touch. Pan Ling only felt as if a wisp of wind had brushed by his cheek. Before he could say anything else, the beautiful figure in front of his eyes scattered into a thousand lights and left the world of the living forever while he could only continue to stand on the bridge and listen to the whisper of the river.