Autumn wind curled around Mount Daqing in the north of the State of Zhao. Most of the rattan vines had dried and withered, and leaves floated down from the mountain into the river below. Perhaps they, like that gourd bottle from years ago, would eventually reach the Milky Way Sea and then float on to the Great Tang in the Eastern Lands.
Beneath Mount Daqing lay three counties. Yunjie County was the most flourishing of the three. It wasn’t very large, but it bustled with people. When market day came, people from the whole mountain region gathered there, and a hubbub of voices would fill the air.
On this day, a young man wearing a clean, blue scholar’s robe walked into Yunjie, seemingly restless with emotion. Though he was a stranger, his face looked familiar. It was, of course, Meng Hao.
He walked down the familiar streets, passing houses and shops. As he strolled through the mortal world, he recalled many things from the past. This place contained his memories from childhood, the lonely bitterness of his youth, and his stubborn attachment to his studies. So many unforgettable events.
Passing a large courtyard, he said, “That would be where Miss Sun lives….” The walls which had seemed so tall in the past, now looked somewhat short. Past the walls were Miss Sun’s bedchambers, a place that had been the subject of many fantasies in the past.
He had often imagined that Steward Sun would take a liking to him, and then offer him Lady Sun’s hand in marriage. She was rumored to be as beautiful as a goddess.
Three years had passed, not a very long time, but to Meng Hao, it seemed as if an entire generation had come and gone.
Shaking his head emotionally, he was about to move on, when suddenly the main doors of the Sun mansion opened and a sedan chair emerged. Meng Hao stopped. How often in the past had he looked into the courtyard, hoping to catch a glimpse into Lady Sun’s bedchamber? His eyes flickered as he gazed at the sedan chair. The wind suddenly lifted the screen curtain of the sedan, and he saw an extremely fat girl inside, her face covered with dark spots. She was young. Meng Hao’s jaw dropped.
If he hadn’t recognized the serving girl next to her, he would never have believed that the young woman was actually Miss Sun.
The sedan chair disappeared into the distance, and Meng Hao continued walking, feeling a bit regretful.
“I just destroyed the image of my dream lover…” he said, shaking his head. “Well, the sages were right: avert the gaze from inappropriateness. I shouldn’t have looked, shouldn’t have looked.” A look of pity appeared on his face as he walked away.
Around noon, Meng Hao found himself staring blankly at a large house off in the distance. It was worn-out and dilapidated and there were clearly people living inside. He could hear noise drifting out from inside. It sounded like the occupants were arguing.
This was Meng Hao’s ancestral residence. Years ago, he had been destitute, and was forced to sell it. Inside that house were many beautiful and happy memories from the past, as well as the bitter, yet empowering memories from the time after his parents went missing.
Image after image appeared in Meng Hao’s mind. He stood there until dusk began to fall.
Silently, he approached the door, raised his hand, and knocked.
The knock silenced the din of argument that had continued unceasingly throughout the afternoon. After a moment the door opened. A middle-aged man stood there, frowning. His face was covered with lines from a lifetime of hardships.
“Who are you? What do you want?”
“Uncle Li…?” said Meng Hao quietly, looking at the man in front of him.
“You…” the middle-aged man stared in surprise. He looked closely at Meng Hao, and then a look of disbelief filled his eyes. “Meng Hao? You… Where have you been? Come in!” With a look of pleasant surprise, the man dragged Meng Hao into the house.
“Wife, come see who it is!”
A middle-aged woman sat inside, tears in her eyes. When she heard her husband’s words, and saw Meng Hao, she gaped for a moment, then rose to her feet, her eyes beaming with joy.
“It really is Meng Hao…” said the man.
“Child, everyone said you just up and left that year. Let Auntie have a look at you.” She stood in front of him, looking him up and down, her eyes filled with happiness. She seemed to have forgotten the afternoon spent arguing. “I haven’t seen you for years. You’ve grown taller, but, ai, you’re so skinny. You must have endured a lot over the years.
“Here, have a seat. Auntie will cook a few dishes for you. You just got back, stay a while. You may have sold this place to your Uncle Li, but it’s still your home.” She gave a kind, happy smile to Meng Hao, then glared at the man and went into the kitchen.
Soon, the table was filled with food. Looking at the couple in front of him, and the kindness in their eyes, it reminded him of the times after his parents had gone missing. Without the help of Uncle and Aunt Li, things would have been much more difficult for him.
“The harvests haven’t been good these years,” said Aunt Li, serving some food to Meng Hao. “We gave our house to our son so that he could get married. Since this place was empty, we moved here.” She gave him a kind look. “Where have you been all these years? We looked all over for you, but were never able to find you.”
Meng Hao listened to them talk and felt their kindness in his heart. He told them a somewhat vague story of traveling to a different part of the nation to study. After the meal was finished, he gave the couple a deep bow.
“Uncle Li, Aunt Li, I would like to repurchase my ancestral home. After all, my mother and father left it for me. Here are some pieces of silver. You two can continue living here and help take care of the place.” He pulled out some pieces of silver from within his robe and put them down.
“This…” Uncle Li hesitated, looking at his wife. Aunt Li said nothing, but after a moment passed, nodded.
“You’re right,” she said resolutely. “This house is yours, left to you by your father and mother. Your Uncle Li and I are getting old, so as you suggest, we will stay here. But we don’t need the silver. We looked after you as you grew up. You’re like our own child! How could we take your money?” She put the silver pieces back into Meng Hao’s hand.
Meng Hao didn’t say anything, instead clasping his hands and bowing deeply to them once again.
He didn’t stay for the night. Instead, he gathered together some things from the house that contained memories, then made his farewells and slipped off into the darkness of the night. He didn’t take the silver with him. He left it on the bed.
Later, he sat cross-legged on a bed in an inn, looking out at the night sky. He sighed.
“I’m no longer part of the mortal world, and yet, it’s hard to sever all the ties.” He closed his eyes. “Well, if they can’t be severed, then I shall just let them remain.”
At dawn the next morning, Meng Hao found the Wang Family carpenter shop. There, he saw an aged Uncle Wang, his face full of wrinkles, sitting in the shop staring at nothing. In front of him was a wood carving that looked just like Wang Youcai. Uncle Wang’s face seemed to be filled with an indelible sorrow.
Meng Hao thought for a moment. He wasn’t sure whether or not Wang Youcai was dead. After being promoted to the Inner Sect, he had sought out Little Tiger, then gone to inspect the area where Wang Youcai had fallen off the cliff. He hadn’t been able to find any clues regarding what had happened.
With a sigh, Meng Hao walked into the carpenter shop.
Sensing that someone had arrived, Uncle Wang lifted his head. When he saw Meng Hao, he stared in surprise. Rubbing his eyes, he stood up, trembling.
“You… You’re… Meng Hao?”
“Uncle Wang, it’s me.” Meng Hao reached out to support the old man.
“Where is Youcai?” he asked. It seemed he hadn’t forgotten the details about what happened that year. Looking at Meng Hao, he suddenly seemed excited. “You both went missing at the same time that year. Where is he…?”
“Youcai wasn’t able to return, so he asked me to send a message for him,” said Meng Hao with a smile. “He’ll be back in a few years. You can rest at ease, sir. Youcai is living very well.” He helped Uncle Wang into his chair, then sat with him for a while chatting. He told him that they had gone off to study, and Youcai was so talented that he wanted to continue studying for some time before returning.
Tears of excitement rolled down Uncle Wang’s face. He listened to Meng Hao’s story, nodding, and it seemed as if some of the wrinkles on his face disappeared. Meng Hao continued to tell some interesting anecdotes, and the old man smiled.
“That kid was always smart. He never wanted to study carpentry from me. He would spend all day thinking about other things. Good, good. If he can go out to study, it’s a good thing.” Uncle Wang’s smile widened. Around noon, Meng Hao left, escorted to the door personally by Uncle Wang.
Little Tiger and Fatty weren’t from Yunjie County, but rather the other two surrounding counties. Meng Hao wasn’t very familiar with Little Tiger, but felt confident that he could take care of himself. On the other hand, he definitely had to go pay a visit to Fatty’s family to let them know he was doing well.
Fatty was most likely in the Southern Domain. Meng Hao sighed inwardly.
That afternoon, he went looking for Steward Zhou, but couldn’t find him. After asking around, he learned that Steward Zhou had moved his household away about half a year ago. People said he’d moved to the capital city of the State of Zhao. Learning this, Meng Hao made no further inquiries, and left Yunjie County.
There were many memories here, but Meng Hao knew that as soon as he had entered the Reliance Sect, his path lay in the direction of the State of Zhao, and the Southern Domain.
He left in silence, taking with him only a few items which he stored in his bag of holding: some pots and bowls, and some bed quilts. The pots and bowls had been given to him by his father as a gift, and the bed quilts had been quilted by his mother. To Meng Hao, these things were priceless.
There were three counties below Mount Daqing. In addition to Yunjie County, there was Yunhai County and Yunkai County. Fatty’s home was in Yunkai.
It was smaller than Yunjie, and although it was not as bustling, it was surrounded by vast tracts of land and was therefore quite a wealthy place. This was especially true of the handful of great families, who controlled sizeable properties and wealth.
Fatty’s father was the famous Moneybags Li of Yunkai County. From what Fatty had told him in the past, his family employed several hundred workers, and you could spend an entire day walking through the family compound, which was filled with menservants and maidservants.
He had said his chamberpot was made of silver, his quilts purchased from the capital city of the State of Zhao, and that from childhood, maidservants would heat his bed for him before he slept. That arrangement had continued as he grew up, and he said he couldn’t even remember how many maidservants he’d touched in his life. In any case, he had never lacked for want of anything, all the way down until the time his marriage had been arranged. His fiancée was an extremely beautiful young woman from a family of famous scholars in Yunkai. His father had put a lot of thought, and money, into successfully arranging the matter.
As he thought back to Fatty’s expression when he talked about it, Meng Hao smiled. He walked into Yunkai County.