I love Xiao Mei's character so much because she knows how to love and let go. The very fact that her love was acknowledged was enough for her. This dear little 15 year old has gone through so much my heart just breaks for her. Yun Ge took a much longer route, and way longer to accept and let go, causing her a lot more grief in the process.
Food for thought: I read this article today and thought of Liu Fu Ling. He was well meaning but he lacked the decisiveness and the ruthlessness to deal with the warring factions. In contrast, his father, Emperor Wu of Han was known for being exactly that and left a lasting legacy. The historical landscape is filled with well-meaning leaders that didn't quite manage to do what they meant to do, but the rare few that manage to bring about change often do so with bloodshed.
Xiao Mei hadn’t seen Liu Fu Ling ever since he moved to Wen Quan Palace. Out of the blue, a eunuch appeared with summons that his majesty was sending for her. She showed no sign of joy, but felt only confusion, even thinking of not responding to her summons, as if some things will never happen if only she chose not to face them.
As Xiao Mei walked into the hall, Liu Fu Ling was in the midst of writing. He sensed her presence, looked up with a smile and bade her to come closer.
Xiao Mei felt her surroundings melt away as a dim memory surfaced. Not long after she entered the palace, there was once she snuck onto the Platform of gods when the Emperor made a sudden appearance, and she hid herself in fright. Yu An found her and was greatly displeased, asking her sternly if she was trying to eavesdrop. She was so scared she just burst into tears, not giving him an answer.
The commotion drew the Emperor over. He walked over and crouched beside her to ask “Why are you hiding alone here? Did someone bully you?”
She looked at the Emperor who was now on eye level with her and suddenly, her fear disappeared. She whimpered that she missed her family; she heard that the Platform of gods was the highest point in Chang An, overlooking the entire city, and she thought that maybe, if she stood on that platform, she will be able to see her parents, but the railings were so high. No matter how hard she tiptoed or jumped, she still couldn’t catch a glimpse of the city.
The Emperor stared thoughtfully at her for a moment before he tenderly wiped her tears away and carried her to the railings and pointed towards the north. “Your parents’ residence is just at that end.”
All she saw were the never ending rows of residences, there was no way she could tell which one was hers, and even more unlikely that she’d see her parents. Yet, even if she didn’t see her parents, she still continued to stare towards the north in a daze. This was the only way she could feel the distance between them bridged a little, and that wasn’t alone.
She continued to look dumbly towards the north, and the Emperor continued to hold her. Neither hurrying her, nor questioning her, only silently giving her strength and support.
“Your majesty…Big brother, why did you come to the Platform of gods? What did you want to see?” She asked softly.
He looked towards the west, but didn’t give her an answer. He put her down and commanded Yu An to bring her back to Jiao Fang Hall, adding that she is to be allowed to play where she wished to in future.
What she really wanted to do was to ask, can I play with you. Yet, she lacked the courage to do so, because even though he was standing just beside her, his eyes were fixed on the west, making him seem so near, yet so far. Slowly, she began to realise that it was best for her not to go anywhere, for no matter where she went, there would be eyes following her darkly. It also began to dawn on her that despite her parents repeatedly assuring her that this place was her new home, this was not her ‘home’ at all, her haven was only as big as Jiao Fang Hall….
Xiao Mei seated herself one level below Liu Fu Ling. Liu Fu Ling passed her an imperial edict. She took one look at it before lifting her head in shock “Your majesty…”
Liu Fu Ling smiled “Don’t be flustered, this isn’t an edict to truly order you to be buried with me, but merely a smokescreen to return your freedom, helping you to release the shackles of Empress-hood.” Xiao Mei’s heart sank, as if she really hoped this edict was a reflection of what he really felt.
“Xiao Mei, I must really thank you for your help in the previous incident.”
Xiao Mei shook her head. She was truly happy when he came to Jiao Fang Hall, even if it was just to talk to her.
“You have wasted many precious years of your youth on me. Fortunately, you are still young. At only fifteen this year, in future…” Xiao Mei cut Liu Fu Ling off “Your wife doesn’t want to leave the palace.”
Liu Fu Ling thought for a moment before saying “Keep this edict first, for you might change your mind at a later date. With this edict, Liu Xun will not dare to harm you.” When Xiao Mei heard the name ‘Liu Xun’, she showed no sign of surprise, but calmly said “If Liu Xun intends to succeed the throne, he will need to change imperial clans. In future, he will be known as your majesty’s grandson, and your wife will be Empress Dowager.” Liu Fu Ling nodded “He will be filial to you. I will command Liu Shun to serve you in Chang Le Palace, you may trust him.”
Liu Fu Ling handed several seals to Xiao Mei. Her expression changed immediately when she saw what they were “Your majesty, this is the military seal to mobilize the troops at Guan Zhong. This, this is the national seal, this is the military seal for the Xibei troops…” Liu Fu Ling instructed her “Keep those things safe, do not let anyone else know about this. Wait till Liu Xun has control over Chang An before handing these to him. You are related by blood to Huo Guang, and Liu Xun is naturally suspicious; by handing these to him, he will be grateful for your favour. In future, he will not suspect you are helping Huo Guang, neither will he treat you well purely based on my command, but will treat you well because of your favour to him.”
Xiao Mei felt like the Guan Zhong military seal was burning into her palm “The general at Guang Zhong is Huo Guang’s lackey. If necessary, Huo Guang will definitely find a way to mobilize those troops without the military seal.” “Huo Guang might be able to move troops at will, but what about the grain? How much will 10,000 strong men eat in a day? If he cannot feed the troops, who will be foolish enough to follow his orders? This military seal in fact controls the grain. If the need arises, hand this to Liu Xun and he will know what to do with it.” Xiao Mei’s hand shook slightly “Your majesty, do you trust me?” You do know the consequences of me handing these to Huo Guang, right?
Liu Fu Ling looked straight at her, his lips curving into a smile “I trust you.”
Xiao Mei’s eyes grew misty as she gripped the national seal tightly, vowing on her life, “Your wife will definitely pass this to Liu Xun.”
Liu Fu Ling shook his head “There are too many variable factors – Huo Guang, the princes of the border, and the ticking time bomb that is Meng Jue. Lu Xun might not be able to emerge victorious, and my aim is to prevent a civil war. If a skirmish were to occur, as a candidate for Emperor, Liu He will not be as good as Liu Xun, but compared to an all-out civil war, the difference between them isn’t that important. Xiao Mei, set a time limit of one month. If within a month, Huo Guang manages to control Chang An and Liu He successfully ascends the throne, then pass the seals to Liu He and pass an imperial edict in your name to crown him, but….” Liu Fu Ling’s smile faded, as his expression grew grave “Once Liu He is enthroned, you must instruct him to immediately pass an edict to order Liu Xun’s death.” “Ah?” Shang Guang Xiao Mei was taken aback.
“If Liu Xun ascends the throne, Liu He will not be able to stir up much trouble, but if Liu He succeeds the throne and Liu Xun is spared, there will definitely be trouble ahead for the Han Dynasty. Those who suffer will be the civilians, so you must order Liu He to decree Liu Xun’s death the moment he ascends the throne.” Shang Guan Xiao Mei stared at the national seal, and military seals in her hand, feeling like a heavy burden now rested upon her shoulders. For her entire life, she thought she would only be a pawn, not expecting that one day, the stability of the dynasty and the lives of millions will be placed upon her shoulders. Liu Fu Ling sighed, an apology written in his eyes as he said “I shouldn’t let your bear all these on your own, but besides you, I truly can’t find another…”
Xiao Mei smiled sweetly “Your majesty, your wife is very glad, for as your Empress, enjoying the bows of the civilians, it is only my duty to protect the stability of this dynasty, and to ensure the civilians don’t have to suffer unnecessary deaths at the hands of soldiers. Your wife will definitely do her utmost to hand the seals safely to the new Emperor.” “I have arranged for a few people to assist Liu Xun. My only concern is General Zhao for he can be very obstinate, so I have specially written an edict for him. If Liu He ascends the throne, the edict will find its way into his hands. If not, you have never heard of this matter.”
Xiao Mei nodded her head vigorously, showing that she understood, but then a sudden thought occurred to her. “If Liu He ascends the throne, Liu Xun might be spared, but if Liu Xun ascends the throne, he will definitely not spare Liu He. What has your majesty planned? If I had an idea, it will make things easier.” Liu Fu Ling smiled, but there was regret in his eyes “Xiao Mei, don’t waste the smarts the Heavens have gifted you with, you should use them to pursue your own happiness.”
Xiao Mei lowered her head.
“I have already ordered Liu Xun to write an edict, promising not to harm Liu He and Yu An.”
Xiao Mei’s lips curved into a mocking smile “Naturally he will agree to anything right now in order to gain the throne.”
Liu Fu Ling smiled, but didn’t say anything. He studied Xiao Mei carefully before saying “I have ordered people to send you safely back to Chang An, you….you take care in future.”
Xiao Mei didn’t move, she raised her head and looked steadily at Liu Fu Ling, allowing all her feelings to show in her eyes for the very first time. Liu Fu Ling only smiled, as if he understood everything, yet as if he didn’t understand anything at all. Xiao Mei pleaded softly “Big Brother Emperor, may your wife just stay here to care for your…”
Liu Fu Ling placed all the seals in Xiao Mei’s hands and said warmly but firmly “Xiao Mei, you must take care of yourself in future. There is still a long road ahead of you, the heavens outside the palace are very wide, why don’t you treat these fifteen years as a dream, and everything and everyone were just false extravagance? Once you wake up from this dream, you may be able to forget everything.”
When Liu Fu Ling drew his hands away, Xiao Mei suddenly grabbed hold of him. Liu Fu Ling was stunned, but he didn’t attempt to prise his hands away, only looking at her, in his eyes she saw understanding, pity, and an apology. His hands were cold, and Xiao Mei wanted to warm them with her hands, “Da Ge…” Tears were swimming in her eyes “I…..I….”
Liu Fu Ling nodded “I know everything.”
Although Xiao Mei’s heart felt like it was torn to shreds, and all she wanted to do was to cling onto him, she still slowly let go of his hands, bit by bit and bravely wiped her tears away. Finally, this wasn’t something that she herself knew, even if it ended up being a mirage, at least he once noticed, and he knew. She made her bows to Liu Fu Ling and retreated, but ignoring etiquette, she continued to stare at him, as if she wanted to remember each and every part of him in her heart.
She smiled as she retreated out of the hall, smiled as she sat on the palanquin, smiled as she ordered the eunuchs to leave, but the moment the palanquin started to move, her tears came like the rain.
Although it was snowing heavily, it didn’t seem to affect the eunuchs’ movement. It wasn’t long before Wen Quan Palace was almost disappearing from her eyes.
“Stop!” Xiao Mei suddenly commanded.
The eunuchs stopped immediately, but the palanquin hadn’t stopped, and Shang Guan Xiao Mei appeared unsteadily from the palanquin.
Liu Shun thought that the Empress had suddenly thought of some unsettled matter, but to his surprise, she only stood by the palanquin in a daze, staring dumbly at the mountains, not moving nor speaking.
Snow fell with more urgency and in an instant; Xiao Mei’s head and body were covered in snow.
Liu Shun was afraid that she would catch a chill and walked up to her side, saying softly “Your highness, it is getting dark and we should be making our way back.” When he looked up, he saw that her whole face was covered in tears. He seemed to understand something and retreated silently with a heavy heart. Xiao Mei stood there dumbly for a long while before slowly turning and making her way down the hill. At least, for now, we are on the same mountain.
Liu Shun requested that she boarded the palanquin, but she didn’t seem to have heard him, only walking forward, one step at a time.
In the whitewashed earth, a small figure struggled to take each step with winds and snow buffeting her. The north wind blew and snowflakes danced. It wasn’t long before the footprints in the snow completely disappeared. Only an empty mountain path, meandering in the bleak mountains remained.
Snow fell in an unusual pattern this year, falling intermittently for more than ten days. The skies were left grey and the mountain paths were sealed with snow, making travel hard.
Wen Quan Palace became like a haven sequestered away from the rest of the world. Liu Fu Ling completely washed his hands away from everything happening outside and spent his time peacefully with Yun Ge. His chest pains weren’t as frequent but he was getting more and more tired; each time he had an attack, he was unconscious for a longer period of time.
At night, as she was sleeping, Yun Ge would often roll up and press herself to his chest, to listen to his heartbeat. When she was sure his heart was beating, she would smile dumbly and only then could she sleep peacefully.
Sometimes, Liu Fu Ling had no idea, other times, he would know she had gotten up, and that she was listening. When she held him lightly and drifted back off to sleep, he would then open his eyes and stare at her tired face, hoping that he wouldn’t suffer another attack again, disturbing her hard earned rest.
And so he realised that when the heavens were cruel, even looking quietly at someone’s sleeping face could turn out to be an extravagant request. Their feelings ran deep, too deep, but time was just too short. Maybe the couple somehow knew that their time together was soon going to be gone, so one was never seen without the other.
During the day, she would be by his side, as his hands, his eyes, doing things he could no longer do, telling him animatedly what the world outside was like. Although he could only stay inside, but through her eyes, through her lovely voice, he saw what the world was like, and it entered his heart. Despite the limited space they were in, they saw how wide the world was and their house was often filled with laughter.
At night, she was curl up in his embrace, reading to him telling him stories, even picking up the flute, to play a tune for him. He could no longer play a full tune, but she showed incredible improvement, playing the tunes he normally played. In the lilting tunes, his eyes filled with longing, hers with unshed tears, but he reached out apologetically to wipe her tears away, she would smile sweetly and in her smile, he would know that there was no need for apologies.
One night, just like any other, Yun Ge was reading to Liu Fu Ling, and through their ancestors’ pen, they were travelling through the country, taking in the sights and sounds. She read for some time, but there was no reaction from Liu Fu Ling.
Fear gripped her “Ling Ge Ge.” She placed her face at his chest and only relaxed when she heard his heartbeat. She set the scroll aside, adjusted his pillow and cushion for him, allowing him to sleep more comfortably. Then she snuffed the candle and lay beside him, pressing her head to his chest and only drifted off to sleep after she heard his heart beating. His heartbeat was her only comfort right now.
At midnight, Liu Fu Ling suddenly woke up. “Yun Ge.” Yun Ge quickly replied “What’s wrong?” Liu Fu Ling smiled “Where did you read up till? I seemed to have drifted off.” Her heart ached, but she only smiled “I was a little tired, and didn’t feel like reading anymore, so I went to bed.”
Liu Fu Ling heard the sound of snow falling and felt like the pain was ripping his chest apart. “Yun Ge, open the windows, I want to look outside.” “Alright.” Yun Ge lit a candle, wrapped his blanket snugly around him, threw on her coat and was about to get off the pallet when he stopped her. “Wait”, he wanted to button her coat properly for her. His movements were extraordinarily slow because of his unsteady hands, but Yun Ge didn’t seem like she noticed, chattering on as she waited for him to be done. When he was done, she walked to the window. The moment she opened the window, a cold blast of the northern wind blew a bunch of snowflakes indoors. The wind blew the plum blossoms into movement, rustling against the wind, while the curtains, and bed curtains were billowing and several paintings of the plum blossoms on the table looked like they were on the verge of being blown away.
Yun Ge nimbly went over and placed a heavy jade stone on them. She tunnelled her way back into her blankets. “It really is cold!” pressing her hands to Liu Fu Ling’s face as she did so. He felt like his face was numb, but with none of the chill she described. He reached out to brush the snow off her face, but couldn’t feel anything either.
It was a dark night, but because of the starkness of the snow, the room was cast in an eerie glow. In the garden, Yun Ge had made to snowmen that were holding hands, but because of the heavy snowfall, the snowmen were now completely buried in snow, their original shape completely obscured by the snow.
They held each other, quietly taking in the scenery outside. The night was still, but snowflakes were dancing.
He felt like his chest was getting more and more constricted, there was no pain but half was body was already numb. Subconsciously, he already knew what was happening.
Liu Fu Ling asked softly “Yun Ge, will you forget me?” Yun Ge nodded vigorously “Yes, I will forget you.” “Yun Ge, do you see the paintings of plum blossoms on the table? I have painted it when it was at its most beautiful, freezing its beauty on a painting, so you may only see it at its most beautiful. In actual fact, it is like any other flower; it will wilt and rot and fall. So am I, I might not be as good as I seem. If we lived together forever, I will also anger you, hurt you and we will fight till we get blue in the fact, you will also shed hurt tears.”
He held her hand tightly, clinging on to what he couldn’t bear to let go of, his only worry. He thought that as long as he loved her and she reciprocated, he would be able to hold her hand and look at the rolling clouds, the flowers blooming and falling, till they were old and grey, but the reality was, no matter how hard he tried, he might have been able to prevent her from leaving, but he couldn’t cast off death.
“Don’t hold on to the image of the plum blossom in its full glory, for it is only an illusion. If you compare the blossoms in
the painting to the actual blossoms, it is unfair to the rest of them.”
Yun Ge squeezed her eyes shut, but she couldn’t stop the trembling of her lids. “Yes.” The wind lifted her hair, and bound it together with Liu Fu Ling’s.
He smiled, but his eyes were full of worry, and he had more and more trouble speaking. He knew she knew, that they didn’t need words between them to express themselves, but he was still worried. “Remember when we went to watch the sun rise? No matter what happens, if you don’t give up and persevere on, there will be an unexpected view. That might not be the road you planned to walk on, or the mountain you wanted to climb, but another path will lead to another view, another mountain might also have the same gorgeous sun rise, don’t keep insisting on your original path….”
Yun Ge planted a soft kiss on his lips and smiled “Don’t worry, I will leave Chang An, and I will forget everything that has happened here. I will go to Miao Jiang, to Yan Bei, to see the mountains and the rivers, I will also write a recipe book, and maybe I might just meet someone who is even better, and together will climb mountains, watch the sun rise, eat the food I make, I will not cling on to your memory… I will forget…” Yun Ge kept smiling, but her voice got softer and softer. Eventually, the strong wind drowned out the rest of her words, until she didn’t know whether she was talking to Liu Fu Ling or to herself.
The snow fall was getting heavier, everything was cloaked in white. Besides the falling snow, nothing else could be seen. Time too, seemed to freeze because of the bitter cold. The couple leaned on one another, wordlessly embracing their end. It was an instant, but also a lifetime. A lifetime, but only an instant.
Liu Fu Ling wanted to reach out to touch her face, but he lacked the strength to do so. He tried to bend his body to his command, when suddenly, a sharp, intense pain hit him, like tens of thousands of needles were pricking his heart, even breathing became difficult, and everything seemed like it was spinning in front of him. Struggling to cope with the pain, he said “Yun Ge, sing me a song. That song….song…”
Yun Ge gently lifted his hand to her cheek, as if she read his mind and put her arm around his waist, singing softly with her head pressed against his chest:
“The dark sky hangs low
The bright stars follow
Fly firefly fly
Who are you thinking of tonight
Liu Fu Ling’s vision slowly grew dim, he tried his best to take one more glimpse of Yun Ge’s face, but she slowly faded away from his vision as darkness gradually enveloped him. He fought it for as long as he can, his heart full of worry and yearning for her only became a spot in the darkness; with a soft sigh, disappearing into endless cycle of life and death.
“The stars in the sky shed tears
The flowers on the ground wither
Blow cold wind blow, blow cold wind blow
As long as you’re with me
Yun Ge’s face grew whiter and whiter as she listened to his faint heartbeat disappear, until she looked like she had not a drop of blood on her face, growing as white as the snowflakes falling outside.
Chill and loneliness settled in the room. The curtains in the hall rustled as they were blown from side to side, adding to the bleakness of the house.
Her hand on his cheek gradually grew colder, until it was as cold as ice, but she showed no reaction as she only continued to hum the song.
Her voice was full of love and tenderness, and bespoke a lifetime of waiting and longing.
The long night was coming to an end. The first golden rays of the sun started to peek through the whiteness of the surroundings, dying the dancing snowflakes brilliant red.
Yun Ge looked up, towards the window.
“Ling Ge Ge, the sun is about to come out. We can watch the sun rise amidst the snow!”
The figure beside her had no reaction, his face peaceful, a smile playing on his lips.
She held him tightly and raised her head, staring unblinkingly towards the east.