Spring was just around the corner. The chilly winter winds gradually began to subside. The snow and frost had already begun to melt beneath the sun’s rays. The sounds of birds could be heard again and vibrant colours slowly reappeared in Lesser Jade House.
Today, Shizun’s little green bird had once again delivered a letter to Huang shixiong informing him that Su Huaizhu was to exit seclusion on New Year’s Eve and only re-enter on the sixteenth of the first month. Huang shixiong shared this news with Gu Ruohai who was elated to hear about it.
A week before New Year’s Eve, Gu Ruohai began putting up a few decorations in the courtyard. He pasted up some Fu characters, red paper cutouts on the walls and windows, and a pair of couplets on either side of the courtyard door. Once he was done, he put away the paste, washed his hands and headed over to the dining hall for lunch.
There was no sign of Wang Ke and the others today, so Gu Ruohai sat and finished his meal alone before taking a stroll around Lesser Jade House. Without a thought, he made his way to Jade Mirror Pond. Ever since Wang Ke had shown them here, he found himself drawn more and more to its mirror-like surface and peaceful surroundings.
The ice had almost completely melted by now and there were only a few floating pieces visible. The nearby waterfall was already gushing water which flowed and connected into the pond.
Gu Ruohai walked along its banks, taking in the light breeze and crisp air. He stopped and sat cross-legged on a flat rock, closed his eyes and began to meditate. Not long after, some rustling noises caught his attention. Upon blinking open his eyes, he turned and noticed some small movements in the grass behind him and guessed that it was a little animal.
All of a sudden, something dived down from above into the grass. It was so quick that Gu Ruohai couldn’t make out what it was. Then out of the grass sprung a small brown and white hawk with a mouse in its talons. With a flap of its wings, it flew off with its kill.
Gu Ruohai watched its departure and shifted back to his meditative position. Just as he was about to close his eyes again, he instantly had a revelation. Without further delay, he hastened back to Yingyuan courtyard and retrieved his sword.
Activating his internal strength, he started on his set of sword moves which he’d been modifying and correcting in the past few months. Then he added in some new manoeuvres to mimic the movements of a hawk. When he was happy with the changes, he harmonised the footwork and increased the momentum. Finally he performed the revised set from beginning to end.
Gu Ruohai smiled to himself. He’d finally done it. After what seemed like endless research, variations and customisations, he’d actually created his own swordsmanship.
As Gu Ruohai sat down to wipe his sword clean, he’d already come up with a name for his technique. Naturally, he needed to honour the source of his inspiration.
He couldn’t wait to show it to Su Huaizhu.
New Year’s Eve had arrived and Gu Ruohai welcomed Su Huaizhu out of seclusion first thing in the morning. He couldn’t control himself and gave him a long hug, breathing in his scent and relishing the familiarity. Su Huaizhu returned the hug and gave him a peck on the lips before pulling him back a little to regard him up and down.
“You look well, Hai Bo’er,” he said with a smile.
“Ng, the rest of them are meeting us in the dining hall for breakfast. Wash up first.” Gu Ruohai said happily as he went to fetch Su Huaizhu’s clothing from the cupboard.
Once they were ready to leave, they met Huang shixiong in the courtyard.
Huang shixiong asked Su Huaizhu, “I trust there’s been progress on your cultivation. How close are you to a breakthrough?”
“Almost there. If I continued to train throughout the New Year, I’d probably complete it by the end of the first month,” Su Huaizhu replied.
“So only about a month more of cultivation to go.” Huang shixiong said. Even if he hadn’t said it out loud, Gu Ruohai had already done the calculation in his head and was glad. They could be together for half a month starting now, then another month of seclusion and then he’d be able to be with Su Huaizhu for much, much longer.
Su Huaizhu nodded and smiled at Gu Ruohai. Huang shixiong was satisfied and turned to go. “Don’t forget what Shizun told you last time.” He reminded Su Huaizhu on his way out.
Su Huaizhu and Gu Ruohai held hands on their way to the dining hall. The others had already arrived and were waiting for them at the table.
When they’d taken their food and sat down, Luo Yu remarked with a smile: “Clearly the happiest person today is Hai Ge.”
Gu Ruohai’s cheeks were suffused with pink as he started to eat.
Su Huaizhu put his arm around Gu Ruohai’s waist and picked food with his chopsticks using his other hand. “So, what have I missed thus far?” He asked the group.
They all took turns updating Su Huaizhu on the happenings during his absence.
Qin Jianyue said, “I recently found a new methodology called ‘Eight Earth Stems Billows’ from Wanjuan Pavilion. Ru shijie recommended it and we’ll start on it after the New Year.”
“Wanjuan Pavilion is akin to a treasure trove.” Luo Yu added. “Each time I go, I always find something new. Three weeks ago, I was in the parasites’ section and there was this scroll on Gu worms. Who’d have thought that I’d be able to find references to Eluo’s techniques all the way over here?”
Wang Ke made a face: “Gu-what now?”
“Gu worm——and there are thousands of different species too. Eluo’s witches usually rear them in human bodies and infect people with them.” Luo Yu explained.
“Why would they do that?” Gu Ruohai asked.
“To torture, kill, manipulate……I could go on and on. Different worms are used for different purposes.” Luo Yu said.
Wang Ke shuddered, “I hope to never be infected by a Gu worm. They’re only found in Eluo right?”
Luo Yu thought for a while: “I believe Eluo has employed them outside of our borders.”
“But they can be killed?” Qin Jianyue asked.
“Of course, but it depends on the Gu breed to determine which method is to be used.” Luo Yu replied.
Su Huaizhu looked up and said, “Someone change the subject, please. I don’t want to think about worms when eating.”
Gu Ruohai spoke up: “I’ve created a new sword technique and named it ‘True Hawk Sword’.”
Everyone congratulated Gu Ruohai. Su Huaizhu was happy for him. “That’s great. You can show me one of these days. Let’s see if you can defeat my Blooming Lotus Sword,” he grinned mischievously.
Wang Ke cleared his throat, “Alright, my turn. I’m almost done training my family’s Twin Butterfly Weave daggers technique. I’ve identified two other weapons I’m interested in learning, but I’m still deciding between a staff or a spear.”
Qin Jianyue said, “Didn’t you ask Fu shixiong?” Fu shixiong was an expert in weapons and in charge of tutoring Wang Ke.
“I did, but he said it was up to me. Then he said that I’ve to work on my methodology as well.” Wang Ke released a sigh.
“I’m sure you’ll figure it out soon.” Gu Ruohai consoled, then turned to Su Huaizhu. “Zhu Zhi’er, you’ve yet to see Jade Mirror Pond. We must bring you there soon. It’s become one of my favourite spots in Lesser Jade House.”
“I’m sure the sights can wait, right Hai Ge?” said Qin Jianyue with a knowing wink.
Su Huaizhu let out a light laugh, “Ng, I can’t wait to see what delicious New Year treats the cooks have prepared this time.”
The others had expected a different response and there was an uncomfortable silence all of a sudden.
Qin Jianyue coughed, “Mmm…Zhu Ge, I actually meant—” Luo Yu tapped his foot under the table and discreetly gestured with his eyes. Qin Jianyue immediately shut his mouth.
Luo Yu snuck a look at Gu Ruohai who appeared rather lost just then and felt a pang of pity on his behalf.
When breakfast was over, Luo Yu, Qin Jianyue and Wang Ke made their excuses, and left Gu Ruohai and Su Huaizhu alone. Everyone from Lesser Jade House would gather in the dining hall that evening for the all-important New Year’s Eve reunion dinner. Right now, they’d purposely given the two an opportunity for some ‘couple’ time.
“What shall we do now?” Gu Ruohai asked in a low, suggestive tone as they were walking back towards Yingyuan courtyard.
Su Huaizhu smiled and said, “Show me Jade Mirror Pond. You said it’s your favourite place. Later, we can play chess. We haven’t played in ages and now that it’s not that cold anymore, we can play in the courtyard again.”
Gu Ruohai’s face fell, but he said nothing. Su Huaizhu didn’t seem to have noticed it and continued to admire the springtime scenery around them.
Unable to resist anymore, Gu Ruohai looked out the corner of his eye at Su Huaizhu. He appeared perfectly normal. They still held hands. He’d even put his arm around him in the dining hall earlier. So why was he acting so decent now?
Then, the assumptions and anxieties that had formed in his mind during the Winter Solstice came spiralling to the surface. Has he lost interest? Have I become so needy? Did I do something wrong?
He mentally scolded himself: Zhu Zhi’er’s only just exited seclusion and all you can think of is bedding him. Get a hold of yourself. There’s plenty of time. No need to be so worked up.
So he forcefully plastered a smile on his face all the way to Jade Mirror Pond and back, then after a late lunch, he graciously played four hours of chess with Su Huaizhu in Yingyuan courtyard.
As the sun began to set, both of them returned to their rooms to freshen up and change before making their way to the dining hall. They found a spot to sit and waited for the rest of the disciples to arrive. It wasn’t long before Luo Yu showed up with Qin Jianyue and took their seats together with Su Huaizhu and Gu Ruohai.
Luo Yu turned and whispered to Gu Ruohai, “Been busy all afternoon, hmm?” He cast him a cheeky look.
It was New Year’s Eve after all and Gu Ruohai didn’t want to spoil the mood, so he maintained his cheerful demeanour and whispered back, “Yes, we were playing chess for hours.”
Luo Yu raised an eyebrow and smiled, “Playing chess, huh?” He tried to stifle a grin and added, “Time well spent.”
Gu Ruohai nodded, “Yes, we played so many rounds that I lost count.”
Luo Yu’s grin got wider and he nudged Gu Ruohai, “I’m happy for you.”
Gu Ruohai paused for a moment, his expression all confused, “You are?”
Luo Yu straightened a little, “I’m surprised you’re not aching all over, though.”
Gu Ruohai thought for a moment and realised that Luo Yu must be referring to him sitting down at the chess game for so long. It reminded him of when he was younger and his father had made him kneel before their ancestors’ spirit tablets for six hours because he’d been playing there and toppled all the offerings on the altar.
So Gu Ruohai shrugged and replied, “It wasn’t that bad, I’ve been on my knees for longer than that.”
Luo Yu looked taken aback and perplexed at the same time after hearing him say that.
Before either of them could say anything more, Wang Ke showed up and sat down with them. Not long after that, Ru shijie stood up and addressed everyone. She read a letter from Shizun conveying her well wishes and after a brief toast, dinner commenced.
There were more dishes than usual today. Steamed fish, stewed mushroom with trotter, colourful stir-fried vegetables, glutinous rice with meat cooked in a claypot were among the ones available. Everyone was in a festive mood. The voices and laughter grew as the evening wore on.
When dinner was over, Qin Jianyue said: “Let’s head to Yingyuan courtyard and usher in the New Year, yes?” He took a jug of wine from the pantry for them to enjoy later. Luo Yu rolled his eyes and followed him out.
Wang Ke grabbed a tray of assorted nuts and snacks before leaving.
Su Huaizhu and Gu Ruohai walked out hand in hand.
All of them chatted and drank until they discerned it already Zi period*. Then they toasted, shouted out New Year greetings and wishes before tidying up. Since it was already so late and everyone was rather tired from all the festivities, Wang Ke, Luo Yu and Qin Jianyue bade goodnight and left Yingyuan courtyard.
(*TN : 11pm – 1am)
Su Huaizhu ushered Gu Ruohai back into the house and shared a kiss before leaving for his own room. Gu Ruohai stared at his back as he walked away and closed the room door behind him. He was somewhat tired too, but he assumed they would at least be sharing a bed like they used to.
He extinguished the lamps, flopped onto the bed and stared at the ceiling boards for a while.
In the next moment, he sat back up, put on his coat and boots, grabbed his long sword off the rack and marched out of the room.