A few of the men gathered outside the gate exchanged glances.
One man’s sleeve shifted.
A black shadow flashed on the dirt below them, and a hurried voice immediately cried out: “Aiya, snake!”
The crowd reacted and everyone was jumping here and dodging there, and in the chaotic shuffle a man was squeezed and pushed and shoved and ended up stumbling over to the carriage train and falling under one of the coaches!
The crowd cried out anew.
The man underneath the wheels of the carriage seemed to be in a full blown panic, yelling and kicking and punching, generally making a lot of noise and pounding on the bottom of the carriage. He reached up to grab onto the sides of the coach’s underbelly as if it steady himself.
His flailing hid the shimmer of dark light flashing in the crook of his arm.
A loud clatter followed the dark light, and an old clothes vendor stand by the road suddenly collapsed, its contents scattering and falling to the ground. The vendor owner cried out and hurried forward to collect his clothes, afraid that they would be tramped by the carriage wheels, his hands flashing forward to gather up all his wares.
And it was in this way that the man underneath the carriage and the vendor lifted their arms in unison.
But a moment later, the stand owner moved away.
The carriages stopped and a guard rushed forward from the train’s head. The man covered in dirt climbed up from beneath the coach, cursing loudly all the while: “Which son of a b*tch pushed me! I almost died!”
Meanwhile the stand owner hugged his clothes meekly, bowing and nodding and smiling for Prince An’s guard, “Honorable guard… this peasant was also pushed by someone, please pardon this peasant’s offenses..”
The guard sneered at the two, ungently shoving them away and telling them to piss off.
An order came from the team leader and the train began orderly rolling forward. It was only when Prince An’s entourage passed out of view that the commoners could breath freely and make their way into the city for their various purposes.
The blue-robed man who had rolled underneath the coach slapped dust away from his clothes as he joined a group of several other men. They bought some rolls of baked biscuit1 and squatted by the roadside, the exact image of some burly laborers.
“What happened?” A man in a wide black robe asked.
“I was stopped.” The blue-robed man replied, his eyes unfocused and covered in gunk. As he spoke, his hand rose to rub at his eyes before he remembered himself, smiling sheepishly when the black robed man glared meaningfully at him. “Still not used to it…”
“Who were they? Why did they stop you?”
“When he stopped me from cutting open the carriage bottom, he only said ‘No. Don’t stir the snake in the grass.’” The blue-robed man replied. “His voice was earnest, and I also felt that something was wrong. The carriage was too heavy, and so I pulled back. I don’t know who this person way, but I did not sense any hostility; many people did not believe the news, and we are not the only people trying to save her.”
The black-robed man hmmed his assent and fell silent. Beside him, the man squatting in the coarse yellow robe stirred uncomfortably, shifting here and there as if lice were creeping over him. He paid no attention to the conversation beside him as his eyes swept over the area around them, and suddenly he plucked a leaf from a nearby tree and announced: “They also have them here.”
He folded the leaf and placed it in his lips, playing a faint tune swiftly lost in the noisy market.
His companions said nothing, quietly watching him as he focused on the leaf flute, blowing without ever tiring.
The men listened and listened until they could no longer bear it, and just as they were going to open their mouths to ask the yellow-robed man to stop, the man lowered the flute and gently murmured: “Play the flute, and I will find you.”
The blurry eyed, blue-robed man turned away.
The black-robed man’s ordinary tallow face looked up at the heads perched above the city gate as he thought; the blue-robed man gestured, dissatisfied as he said: “Why are you staring, don’t look at it!”
With those words, he turned away, determined to ignore the heads.
The yellow-robed young man also ignored the heads as he slowly chewed on his baked biscuit. “It’s not her.”
The blue-robed man turned, suddenly attentive. He leaned down and hurriedly asked: “How can you be sure?”
The yellow-robed young man shoved the other man away.
“I’ve been thinking…” The black-robed man said, his eyes still fixed on the decapitated heads above. “Did you never wonder, if she is still alive, why would Jin Siyu keep it a secret? If she’s alive, why does he not know her true identity? What exactly happened that night?”
The others fell into solemn silence, and finally the blue-robed man replied with heavy bitterness: “I… I don’t know…”
The yellow-robed young man flicked his sleeve and the baked biscuit crumbled to dust. He stared quietly at the disintegrated baked good before turning away, facing the wall.
The blue-robed man stared in disbelief, grabbing the young man and turning him from his silent self-punishment, scolding him all the while: “This is not Tian Sheng. You are not by her side. We are in enemy Da Yue; she is in danger, her fate unknown! You need to get a handle of yourself! You need to speak clearly and act normally! You have no choice! If you get us killed, you will get her killed!”
His words and tone were harsh, and the man in the wide black robes was about to protest, but just as the black-robed man opened his mouth, he stopped himself and sighed.
The yellow-robed young man showed no anger, not pushing the blue-robed man aside. He seemed to think for a moment before lifting his head solemnly and asking: “If I am normal we can find her? If I don’t act like you, she will die?”
“Aiya, yes, just speak like that!” The blue-robed man nodded hurriedly as if scared any delay on his part and the young man would lapse into abnormality once more.
The yellow-robed man squatted once more, nodding after a moment as he spoke: “She wants me to leave my shell. She’s said that if she could see me like that, she would be very happy to come see me.”
He spoke slowly with many a pause as if pondering deeply and laboring carefully before a single fluent, connected sentence. The other two men exchanged happy looks, and the black-robed man could not help but murmur: “Perhaps this is a blessing in disguise…”
“His heaven and earth is only her; without her, he cannot even return to what he was before.” The blue-robed man muttered enviously as he squatted.
“I am also to blame.” The black-robed man sighed before continuing: “I should not have left, how else would you have been poisoned?”
“Enough!” The blue-robed man replied grumpily. “All the blame is mine! I was too soft-hearted to be great! That mother****** from De Zhou and the Yu Zhou Grain Official. Medora escaped, so they drugged the new grain. Who knew that everything would go wrong? We never eat the new grain, but suddenly we were eating fresh porridge!”